Update, 07/31/19: Lordy, there may be a tape. On Wednesday afternoon, Michael Quinn Sullivan claimed on his website to have a recording of the meeting in which he says House Speaker Dennis Bonnen tried to convince him to target ten Republicans in exchange for media credentials. While not exactly a surprise, it’s a striking escalation of what has already become one of the strangest Texas political scandals in ages, and represents a potentially mortal threat to Bonnen’s speakership. Unlike Sullivan, Bonnen has a reputation to defend. If Bonnen lied about the meeting and Sullivan has proof, Bonnen’s credibility is shot for good. In his new post, Sullivan offered to play the tape for any interested elected official or high party member. The ball is back in Bonnen’s court.
Politics these days can feel annoyingly scripted, the events of each news cycle preordained by some lower power. So when something genuinely shocking or unusual does happen, it hits twice as hard. That was the case late last Thursday afternoon, when far-right mandarin Michael Quinn Sullivan dropped a bomb on the Texas Legislature, setting off a chain of events that—barring the intervention of a merciful God or my editor—we’re going to call #Bonnenghazi.
In case you missed this palace intrigue, here’s what happened: On one of his websites, Sullivan published an article alleging that House Speaker Dennis Bonnen invited him to a meeting soon after the end of the last legislative session during which Bonnen offered him a straightforward quid-pro-quo deal. Bonnen would grant Sullivan’s political pressure group, Empower Texans, credentials to cover the session from the House floor just like actual media outlets if MQS, as he’s not so fondly known, would help the speaker take out certain Republicans in the primaries.
In Sullivan’s telling, Representative Dustin Burrows, the head of the Republican caucus and a close Bonnen ally, read the list of ten target Republicans to Sullivan once Bonnen was safely out of the room. The list included a few reps who have tangled with Bonnen, and a few others whose inclusion is puzzling.
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Sullivan knows where a lot of the bodies are buried in Austin—he’s buried a few of them himself—but he wrote that this offer threw him for a loop. ”It is difficult to surprise me,” he wrote. “But I admit Bonnen’s offer was something I was not prepared for; it was outside of my experiences.” That sense of shock radiated outward from Sullivan on Thursday and has been ricocheting around Austin; more than anything, a wide variety of normally blasé Capitol insiders have seemed… confused.
This was a really, really big accusation, with potentially far-reaching consequences for Texas politics. As it was written, Sullivan’s account seemed implausible, for about two dozen reasons. But it also seemed too big to have been made up out of whole cloth. Something had happened, but what? Thickening the fog, neither party has been especially forthcoming to the media. Sullivan told journalists he wouldn’t be releasing corroborating information, and Bonnen has so far declined to speak to journalists. (His spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
We’re left to piece together events from primary sources like historians reading soldiers’ letters from some ancient battle. We have five documents to draw on, at the moment: Sullivan’s initial post, a letter Sullivan provided therein, Bonnen’s initial response, Bonnen’s second response, and Sullivan’s rejoinder. Somehow, the more you read, the less you know, but that’s true of many good mysteries.
First, some context: Sullivan’s account seems implausible at first glance. Would Bonnen really have done something so stupid for no easily discernible reason? He had recently finished his first session as speaker on a high note, receiving high marks from Democrats and Republicans alike. (We put him on the Best Legislators list.) He seemed assured of a second term as speaker except in the unlikely event Democrats won the House.
So Bonnen’s interest is in keeping the GOP caucus fat and happy. He made a big show, along with other Texas Republican bigwigs, of announcing his intent to back all Republican incumbents and to punish any member who campaigned against other incumbents. The revelation that he was breaking his word could do a lot of damage to him—and potentially encourage the ten targeted Republicans to break with him next session.
And why would Bonnen trust Sullivan, one of the biggest snakes in Texas politics, to keep that powerful of a secret? Empower Texans plays fast and loose with the truth at the best of times, and MQS is widely hated in Bonnen’s caucus. What’s more, Empower Texans’ star has been sinking. MQS and his minions had a bad session and his donors have been backing away. The mere revelation that Bonnen was meeting with Sullivan would be damaging to Bonnen’s credibility. In Sullivan’s account, Bonnen invited him into his house and handed Sullivan blackmail material on himself. Really?
Bonnen has a reputation of being shrewd, and this seemed unshrewd. But then again, smart people do stupid things all the time, and the smart people most likely to do stupid things are the ones who fancy themselves the smartest smart person in the room, which Bonnen could certainly be accused of.
Sullivan’s reputation is such that it would not be unreasonable to assume Sullivan taped the meeting. (A group close to Sullivan spent much of the 2015 session surreptitiously videotaping lawmakers in the hope of getting dirt.) That’s perhaps important to keep in mind when reading Bonnen’s responses, which are curiously worded and do not amount to forceful denials.
In Bonnen’s first letter, which he says he wrote to “set the record straight” and “add needed context,” he lays out his timeline of events and characterizes Sullivan’s post as “another chapter in MQS’s ongoing effort to divide and ultimately destroy the Republican majority in the Texas House.” The meeting, Bonnen said, was held in order to seek peace on behalf of the caucus. What’s weird about the letter is that it doesn’t mention Sullivan’s core accusation—that Burrows, with Bonnen’s blessing, read Sullivan a list of ten Republicans the speaker was comfortable feeding to the wolves.
If there simply was no list, or Sullivan was somehow spinning an innocuous aspect of the meeting, you would expect that fact to be central to Bonnen’s response. Its absence is conspicuous. Over the weekend, House Republicans conferred with each other. The speaker’s response was clearly insufficient. Heightening the feeling of paranoia was the fact that Burrows, the key player here, went radio silent.
On Monday, Bonnen released a new statement. “Despite my best attempt at clearly and efficiently laying out the facts, the true nature of my conversation with Michael Quinn Sullivan somehow continues to get lost in the media narrative,” Bonnen said. Fake news! “Let me be clear. At no point in our conversation was Sullivan provided with a list of target Members.”
This is another curious wording. Sullivan pointedly wrote that Bonnen had left the room when the list was read, so “at no point in our conversation” does not seem to be a direct rebuttal to the claim at hand. At no point does the statement say: The list is a fiction, it never existed, Sullivan was never read any names.
Bonnen wrote in the statement that he asked Burrows, his key corroborating witness, not to speak about the meeting to anyone, which is also a bit perplexing. “It is my hope that this additional context will resolve any lingering issues related to this matter so that we can move on,” he says.
Wishful thinking, that. This is going to linger. Short of a tape of his own, Bonnen will find it difficult to prove the meeting was innocuous even if it was. Sullivan doesn’t have to be telling the perfect truth—the doubt will be on Bonnen, not Sullivan, to resolve. In his new post, Sullivan asks Burrows three direct questions, among them: “Did Speaker Bonnen not in the meeting say, ‘he’ll show you the list …’?” Meanwhile, the Quorum Report’s Scott Braddock tweeted that the ten Republicans have taken to calling themselves the “X-men,” as in the roman numeral. Some of them have started saying publicly they want Burrows to speak up quickly.
This is an inside baseball story, albeit an important one. Among other possible consequences, several of the lawmakers on Bonnen’s list are figures who could win support from Democrats in a speaker’s race next session. If Democrats come close to a majority, they could theoretically ally with Republican members who Bonnen pissed off and together elect a new speaker, as happened in 2009. But it’s also a matter of concern for the public. Even if Sullivan is lying, his accusations are serious, and Texans deserve an accounting of this matter. Bonnen may not be able to clear the air completely, but he needs to try.