In July, when right-wing ringleader Michael Quinn Sullivan accused House Speaker Dennis Bonnen of essentially trying to bribe him to secure his help in ousting members of the GOP, it was a profound shock to the Texas political community. The revelation soon after that Sullivan had secretly taped the meeting was another shock. Since then, observers have had time to come to grips with the details of the harebrained scheme launched by Bonnen and his second in command, Dustin Burrows.
But they still wanted to hear it for themselves, and now they can. On Tuesday, Sullivan released the tape. A little more than an hour long, it confirms that Bonnen offered Sullivan’s widely despised right-wing pressure group access to the House floor, a thing of real material value, if Sullivan promised to limit his anti-incumbent spending in the upcoming Republican primary to ten GOP lawmakers Bonnen sees as enemies. He offered this in his official capacity as speaker, and despite having promised again and again in the strongest possible terms that he would not campaign against any sitting lawmaker, or tolerate anyone else doing so either.
He committed reputational seppuku, and it seems hard to imagine that he’ll ever be able to recover. But it’s still worth listening to, or reading the transcript, to learn a little about how some of the most important political operators in the state talk behind closed doors. The deeply casual way in which Bonnen and Burrows discuss the expenditure of millions of dollars and the manipulation of the political process is telling, as is the deeply insulting way both talk about both their colleagues and local elected officials.
On top of that, if you know a little about the central characters and pay close attention to the exchanges, it’s also pretty funny. Accidentally, the three seem to have formed a local oddity: Austin’s least worst improv trio, each man playing a goofball character who thinks he’s a very slick operator.
Here’s the thing: If you don’t know who the Fredo Corleone in the room is, it’s you. If there’s only Fredos in the room, you should leave. None of these guys come off well, but there’s a messy exchange near the middle of the recording that captures each person’s blissful lack of self-awareness. After Bonnen has offered his “deal,” conversation turns to Sullivan’s heated criticism of the House during the last legislative session. Bonnen unloads. “You’re missing my point. There has been a ton of criticism of the House—hold on—and of me,” Bonnen complains. The Senate, he adds, has not gotten its fair share of criticism.
Sullivan seems to have some kind of a personal grudge against him, Bonnen says. “That’s my frustration, candidly. This is a whole different place right now and y’all aren’t recognizing that,” he says. Bonnen is making a passionate case that Sullivan seems to be on some kind of mission to destroy him—to Sullivan’s face, immediately after offering a quid pro quo that could detonate his political career. He’s Fredo #1.
Fredo #2 is Burrows, who complains to Sullivan that he called him “a moron” on Twitter, starting an exchange with perfect comedic timing. Bonnen backs up his buddy. “When you call people ‘moron’ and this and that, they don’t trust you,” he says. Sullivan responds: “I don’t think we called you a moron.” Burrows: “You said ‘moronic.’” Sullivan again: “We may have said something was moronic.” But the language is burned in Burrows’ brain. “The moronic Dustin Burrows,” says Burrows, “which refers to the person being a ‘moron.’”
Sullivan did, in fact, call Burrows “moronic.” But Burrows’ assertion that he’s smart, not dumb, not like everybody says, takes on a tragic dimension when one considers that he’s doing it into an open mic, shortly before giving the person who called him moronic the power to end his political career. C’mon, man.
Then there’s Sullivan, Fredo #3. He of course knows he’s taping this conversation, and so his remarks have to be read in that light. But at the tail end of this exchange, there’s a weird moment where he lays into Bonnen and Burrows for not keeping him more informed during the session, when they try to take credit for stuff that happened in secret.
“We also don’t know what you’re doing in the background,” says Sullivan. “Y’all made sure we did not get to see stuff that was going on the floor. Y’all made sure of that. That’s your call, not mine. That’s fine. All right, so to the extent that you were trying to do things and we didn’t know about it, maybe you should have let us know about it.” He seems genuinely agitated, but unable to reconcile his belief that he should be privy to the inner circle with the fact that he’s wired up like Donnie Brasco.
There’s weirdness throughout. Here’s how they greet each other: “Been a while,” says Sullivan. “So what are you thinking?” asks Bonnen. “I’m thinking that I’m glad it’s not raining,” says Sullivan. Be here all week, try the veal!
Fully a sixth of the tape is given over to Sullivan’s extended disquisition on his recent trip to France, the Battle of Normandy, and his feelings about President Emmanuel Macron. He ate some escargot, he said. “They must have been really hungry in France at one time,” says Burrows. Sullivan manages to get to restaurant recommendations in London before Bonnen pulls the thing back to the matter at hand.
What’s less funny is the immense contempt all three men demonstrate for people not in the room. Bonnen says Democratic state representative Jon Rosenthal is a “piece of shit” who “makes my skin crawl” and is surely a closeted gay man. State representative Michelle Beckley is “vile.” Burrows calls their Republican colleague Keith Bell a “dumb freshman.”
One exchange that hasn’t been reported widely concerns local elected officials, many of whom came to Austin on a bipartisan basis to oppose legislation, backed by the speaker, to restrict how local governments raise and spend money. Bonnen calls them all idiots who are going to fare even worse next session.
“Any mayor, county judge that was dumbass enough to come meet with me, I told them with great clarity, my goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the Legislature for cities and counties,” Bonnen says. Burrows chimes in: “I hope the next session’s even worse.” To which Bonnen replies: “And I’m all for that.” Apart from the farcically nonsensical desire to “punish” local governments, the local officials in both men’s districts are Republicans. It seems unlikely to go over well.
Everyone is expendable to Bonnen and Burrows, or usable. Scott Braddock, the best-sourced journalist at the Capitol, is called “sleazy” by Burrows. Bonnen says he’ll have Braddock banned from the floor next session at the same time as he puts Sullivan’s guys on the floor, presumably because Sullivan hates him too.
In a very brief statement soon after the tape was released, Bonnen called the transcript “clear evidence now disproving allegations of criminal wrongdoing,” adding that “the House can finally move on,” which called to mind Trump’s declaration that his call with the Ukrainian prime minister was “perfect.” And maybe this isn’t illegal. In Texas, plenty of things that ought to be illegal are never prosecuted. It’s sort of our way.
But, uh, the quid pro quo here is written in neon. Bonnen and Burrows both outline it over and over again in the most explicit terms imaginable. The two are trying to direct campaign spending in exchange for access to the House floor. That’s a travesty. Bonnen even says explicitly that that access is something that will have “a lot of value” to Sullivan’s organization.
At the end of the meeting, Bonnen even acknowledges this talk was improper. Going forward, he says, “there are times you and I can talk too. I just want to be cautious because I don’t want to get you in trouble or get me in trouble.” Sullivan says: “It’s 5 p.m., I’m not in jail, it’s a good day.” Bonnen responds: “Exactly.”
This weekend, the House GOP caucus is supposed to get together near Austin for its annual retreat. Hopefully, someone will tape that too.