Tucker Carlson Calls Himself a Populist. He Has No Problem Taking Private Equity Money.

Tucker Carlson pitches himself as a tribune of the people. But new documents reveal that he and other media elites get paid top dollar to speak at fancy conferences hosted by private equity firms, some of the most rapacious, anti-worker actors in American capitalism.

Tucker Carlson speaking in West Palm Beach, Florida, in 2018. (Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons)

Tucker Carlson slammed former president Barack Obama in April 2017 for giving a $400,000 paid Wall Street speech, calling it “indefensible.”

“What could the former president possibly say a) that we haven’t heard, b) that would be worth $400,000 for an hour?” the Fox News host asked on his show.

Five months later, Carlson and Obama both spoke at the same conference hosted by the Wall Street giant The Carlyle Group, a private equity colossus.

According to Bloomberg, Obama “discussed his life and the decisions he made in the White House.” It was one of three finance industry speeches Obama did in the span of weeks.

Carlson, who has been known to criticize Wall Street on his show, spoke on a panel with other journalists. He has also done speaking gigs with JPMorgan and the investment banking firm Jefferies Group. Carlson bills more than $70,000 per appearance, according to his profile on the Washington Speakers Bureau.

The revelations about Carlson were included in records obtained from state pension systems that invest in private equity firms.

The documents spotlight how an elite group of Beltway luminaries give secret speeches to investment firms that are eager to win political friends and influence the influencers, as those same firms seek to preserve special tax loopholes and prevent more regulation of their increasingly controversial business practices.

Private Equity’s Influence-Peddling Machine

Private equity firms have become among the top investors in direct political influence. Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman donated $20 million to the Senate GOP’s super PAC and $3 million to an outside group backing President Donald Trump. Schwarzman has served as an outside adviser to Trump and bundled contributions for his reelection campaign. Top Blackstone executives also donated big sums to Biden. And the firm’s hospital staffing company helped bankroll a $54 million dark money campaign against bipartisan “surprise billing” legislation that could have cut into its profits.

Offering big speaking fees to media elites is one less-scrutinized facet of this larger influence campaign. Indeed, it is now a common side hustle for prominent political pundits and well-known journalists who are actively shaping and policing America’s political discourse — and who are limiting the conversation to terms that avoid offending wealth and power.

For the most part, the lucrative cottage industry of speaking fees is a taboo subject operating in the shadows of ritzy closed-door confabs. Few if any of the beneficiaries disclose their cash hauls to unwitting viewers watching them on Sunday-show style panels where they’re depicted as dispassionate observers of Washington events.

But now, conference agendas obtained from state pension systems provide a glimpse into the lucrative world of “buckraking,” whereby political and media icons trade their fame for paid speeches to corporate groups lobbying the government. The documents spotlight several annual investor conferences held by the Blackstone Group and the Carlyle Group, two of the world’s most powerful private equity firms, with a combined $800 billion worth of assets under management.

Beneficiaries include David Axelrod, Fareed Zakaria, and Nate Silver. Even legendary Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward speaks to corporate lobbying groups.

The speakers’ listed fees represent more money than many Americans earn in a year — and the fees are in exchange for speeches that briefly entertain wealthy people with outsize influence on our political and legislative processes. Many of the luminaries doing the speeches head back to their day jobs doing roundtables for corporate-owned media outlets, where they depict legislation as too progressive and insist the Left is responsible for Democratic Party incompetence.

Our reporters reached out to Carlyle, Blackstone, and the Beltway influencers named in this story to verify their appearances at the conferences. The firms and most of the speakers didn’t respond.

A Who’s Who of Washington

Axelrod, the former Barack Obama strategist and CNN commentator, and Karl Rove, the former George W. Bush adviser and Fox News contributor, spoke at a dinner reception as part of the Blackstone Capital Partners LP Conference in May 2016. The conversation, moderated by Fox News host Chris Wallace, took place at New York’s Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

Axelrod repeatedly criticized Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign for her handling of questions about her own lucrative Wall Street speaking appearances, while a Rove-linked super PAC released an attack ad against Clinton complaining that “Wall Street made her a multi-millionaire.”

In late 2016, former UK prime minister David Cameron spoke as part of the Blackstone Real Estate Global Limited Partners Conference at a dinner reception hosted at the American Museum of Natural History. Cameron was paid $120,000 for his time, according to a report by the Daily Mail.

Carlyle’s Washington investor conference in September 2016 featured a panel on “America’s Next President,” with CNN’s chief political analyst Gloria Borger, Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report, and then-Bloomberg TV host Mark Halperin. A luncheon panel featured Zakaria, the CNN host, and Richard Haass, the Council on Foreign Relations president and a former George W. Bush State Department official.

A CNN spokesperson said that Borger’s “speaking engagement honorarium was approved on the condition that it was donated to charity, and it was, in fact, donated to charity.”

Carlyle’s 2017 DC investor conference included a panel on “Politics in Washington,” featuring Carlson, Washington Post national reporter Robert Costa, and BBC World News America anchor Katty Kay. Obama spoke at the same Carlyle conference, according to a Bloomberg report.

Another conference panel on “Foreign Policy Insights” featured former Bush secretary of state Colin Powell and Ash Carter, an Obama defense secretary. Carter declined to comment through a spokesperson.

Former House speaker Paul Ryan keynoted a luncheon at Carlyle’s 2019 investor conference in Washington, less than a year after he retired from his congressional seat.

Hugh Hewitt, the conservative radio host and NBC News contributor, and Paul Begala, the former Bill Clinton adviser and CNN political analyst, spoke on a panel about “America’s Political Landscape.”

Begala has frequently teamed up with Carlson, his former Crossfire sparring partner, at finance industry conferences. Begala’s reported fee is a comparative bargain at less than $25,000.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced Carlyle to hold its 2020 investor conference in September virtually. Former Trump Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb spoke as part of a conversation on “Better Insights on Vaccine Developments.”

Ian Bremmer, a political scientist and frequent cable news guest, participated in a discussion about “Building Geopolitical Bridges.” Bremmer reportedly commands more than $70,000 per speech, according to the Washington Speakers Bureau.

Polling aggregator and FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver participated in a panel on September 16 entitled: “The Future of Big Data — From Election Forecasting to Investing.” He is reportedly paid between $50,000 and $100,000 per speech.

A representative for Silver declined to comment and said he was unable to confirm the accuracy of his reported fee range.

“Proprietary Documents”

We obtained the Blackstone and Carlyle event agendas through open records requests to state retirement systems that invest in private equity firms. Their officials are regularly invited to luxury conferences as part of their agencies’ partnership agreements with the firms. The records requests went to officials in thirteen states, and sought conference agendas from events held by six private equity firms.

While officials in Florida, Maine, and South Carolina provided copies of private equity firm agendas without much issue, some agencies refused to release any agendas, citing exemptions in state open record laws.

The exemptions, which have been pushed by the finance industry throughout the country, can shield all but the most basic financial information about states’ investments with private equity firms and hedge funds.

For example, a lawyer for the Colorado Public Employees’ Retirement Association said the agency could not provide the conference agendas “because information regarding private equity investments is confidential under Colorado law except for several data points.”

The Oregon Treasury said that “records related to private equity investments are exempt from disclosure under” a state statute. Indeed, the statute explicitly exempts “meeting materials of an investment fund, an asset ownership or their respective investment vehicles.”

The New York State Comptroller’s office said: “Agendas and other meeting materials prepared for conferences and meetings sponsored by private equity firms . . . are proprietary documents labelled as such. These materials are typically made available only to limited partner investors in private equity funds of such firms and may not be shared with the general public.”

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Andrew Perez is a writer and researcher living in Maine.

David Sirota is editor-at-large at Jacobin. He edits the Daily Poster newsletter and previously served as a senior adviser and speechwriter on Bernie Sanders's 2020 presidential campaign.

Walker Bragman is a journalist and JD whose work has been featured in Paste Magazine, the Intercept, HuffPost, the Independent, Salon, Truthout, and the Hill.

Julia Rock is a contributing writer for the Daily Poster.

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