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Harry Reid unplugged

Jon Ralston
Jon Ralston

In all the years I have known Harry Reid, never has he so well encapsulated his career as he did last week when I sat down with him at his Anthem Country Club home:

“I did things no one else would do.”

Reid then proceeded to wax rhapsodically about threatening bankers after the recession when MGM Resorts, which now employs him, couldn’t get funding for City Center, and, at about the same time, intimidating hedge fund managers who were preparing to fund coal plants for NV Energy in rural Nevada, facilities that were never built.

“No one in their right mind would have done what I did….” the 79-year-old told me. “No one would have done that….but it paid off.”

Reid, looking a bit gaunt after treatments for pancreatic cancer, used the words “no one” in this context several times during the nearly 90-minute interview as he sat behind a small desk near the foyer of his home next to a bookcase that proudly displays his “Office of the Majority Leader” sign. He is not a boastful man, but he clearly was proud of his efforts on behalf of MGM and against NV Energy, as well as his willingness to take on Mitt Romney, to surrender a powerful chairmanship to get Jim Jeffords to switch parties and change the balance of power in the Senate (Why? “I wanted to take care of the Republicans.”) or to relinquish a seat on appropriations to Ben Nelson (“I felt with my position running the Senate that I could get what I wanted anyways.”).

There are those who have compared Reid to President Trump, whom the senator recently called “amoral” and “the worst president we have ever had,” for coarsening the civic discourse. But considering what he was able to do in the Senate’s inside game – with Jeffords, with Nelson, during the Keating Five scandal as a broker of exit deals – the wrong person wrote the book, “The Art of the Deal.”

The longtime pol knows he remains a polarizing figure – people on Twitter already were sputtering with venom when I teased this piece – and he all but revels in it. Reid recalled how Dallin Oaks, a Mormon elder, introduced him at an event two years ago.

“He starts out by saying, ‘Harry Reid is adored by many and abhorred by many.' That was his introduction…I couldn’t criticize him for telling the truth.”

Reid was in a reflective, contemplative mood as he answered my questions about current events and his career, often directing the flowing conversation into tributaries about his run-ins with the mob (he told me about how the pressure caused him to offer his resignation as the state’s top gaming regulator), his most difficult race, how he didn’t really want to try to get Nevada early-state status, the two things he was advised to do when he was first elected to Congress and even his wealth.

The retired senator also talked candidly (as best I could tell, at least) about his health (he will soon be in a wheelchair), which has received much speculation since The New York Times’ Mark Leibovich wrote: “Reid, who is 79, does not have long to live. I hate to be so abrupt about this, but Reid probably would not mind.”

Reid did mind, telling at least two local media outlets he was not happy about the characterization. And he, perhaps, was willing to sit for an interview to dispel premature reports of his coming demise.

I’ll get to all of this – and more – today and in a Q&A of the rest of our conversation that we will publish Monday.

I have known Reid for 32-plus years. (Right after I walked in the door and before I sat down across from him with an aide next to me, he asked me whether I remembered the first time we met. I didn’t. He told me it was on a rural tour for his 1986 campaign, the first one I covered — and which may be right.)

But I have never sat down with him for as long as I did on Friday, and he told me things I had never heard before. As I have written plenty of times, Reid and I have had a rocky relationship – he has cut me off twice and tried to get me fired a time or two – but there has always been a mutual, if not grudging respect.

And there’s this, too: Reid’s shamelessness – I don’t know whether he will mind that word – is something that has always fascinated me, and I always wondered how he could justify some of the actions he took. We had not had an on the record chat in years – he refused to come on my television program for the last five years of its existence, mostly because his wife, Landra, was furious with stories I had done about his sons. So I was eager to ask him that seminal question that defined his career.

I didn’t have to.

Banks, emirs, hedge fund managers and Mitt

A few minutes into the interview, Reid talked about how he was not “out hustling press” as he never has, and then said this:

“I had one of the presidential wannabes call me, and she said, ‘You know, I’ve heard so much about you and we’ve met, but it was very brief. Tell me, why do you think you’ve been successful?’ I said, I’ve been successful because I’ve always been willing to take a chance. I was always aware that I can be wrong. I mean, I took some chances on stuff like, I took on coal here in Nevada….I took on stuff that nobody would take on. I took on Romney. Nobody would take him on. I did that. So, I was never afraid of failing. And I failed a lot.”

He didn’t fail with either coal when NV Energy was getting ready to build new plants or the banks when City Center was teetering on the edge or, arguably, with Romney when he ran for president, though.

In the MGM case, he may literally have saved the company almost 10 years ago during the recession. The story came out that Reid had been calling banks as the company was nearly bankrupt and unable to find financing for City Center. I and others wondered whether that was an abuse of power.

“Senator Reid has simply been asking banks to take a fair look at MGM’s City Center project to ensure that sound banking analysis is driving credit decisions, not irrational temerity over what is sometimes portrayed as a controversial industry,” his spokesman spun at the time.

But last week, even Reid acknowledged that was a whitewash of what happened.

“No one in their right mind would have done what I did,” Reid told me. “No one would have done that. Now, I have a love affair with [former MGM owner] Kirk Kerkorian going back a long, long time. So, part of it was because I had such admiration for him. But what I did there, I called presidents of banks, threatened them any way I could. I called the emir of Dubai or whatever the hell it was.”

Soon afterward, the company announced that MGM and Dubai World had reached an agreement with lenders.

Reid’s heavy hand hammered financiers for another project around the same time, just as he was about to run for his fifth and final term in 2010. Nevada Power (now NV Energy) was preparing to build coal plants in rural Nevada, plants Reid told me in a 2007 interview “will never be built.”

Reid had became something of a clean energy crusader and the utility was one of his favorite whipping boys. He explained last week that he decided to take things into his own hands.

“I was not staff-driven, okay?” he said, using one of his favorite locutions to end the sentence. (He also described himself as “impulsive.”) “But I did stuff that they were so upset at me. For example, I was up for re-election when they were going to build those four coal fire plants in Central Nevada. I took on every one of them. I did things that no one would do. I called the head of a hedge fund. I said, ‘I don’t know how I can get even with you. But you mark my word, I will get even in some way. I don’t know how. You back out of that deal to build that plant or you’ve got me just out there looking at everything you do.’ So, I did that with all four of them, and they all backed out.”

The plants were never built.

I want you to imagine any other public official you know of not only doing such a thing, but talking about it so openly.

Time’s up. There are not any.

I asked Reid why he thought that this was kosher, using his public office to intimidate financial institutions. He thought about it for a moment, then said:

“Because I believe if you have a job that you’ve been given by virtue of people electing you that you have a responsibility to do the best you can do. To do what they would do if they could do it. And I don’t try to, I never try to please everybody. I know I couldn’t do that. But I didn’t care, because I had a personal conviction that what I was doing was right. Now, did I know that I was right? No. But that’s how I felt about it.”

Reid applied the same moral code, he said, to what he did to Romney during the 2012 campaign.

Reid said he was frustrated that no one was going after the GOP nominee on not paying his fair share of taxes, so he called up party leaders and the White House and told them, “I got the stuff on Romney. It’s great. I got a source, somebody who used to do business with him, not paying his fair share of taxes. No one would do it. So I did it.”

And did he ever. Repeatedly, even on the Senate floor. I thought it was outrageous and wrote a column saying so, one that was killed by Reid’s good friend, Las Vegas Sun Editor Brian Greenspun.

Reid already has told CNN’s Dana Bash his ends justify the means explanation – “Romney lost, didn’t he?” But he also inaccurately described what he actually said about Romney – both on KNPR on Thursday and to me this week. He didn’t say “fair share” of taxes. Reid said Romney didn’t pay any taxes for 10 years.

I asked him about his elision there, about whether he got carried away when he was on the attack. “Probably,” he said matter of factly, “because he did pay taxes.”

My goodness.

Reid immediately followed up by telling me, as he alluded to on KNPR, “Romney and I are good.”

He then told the story about how he long ago became close to former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, whose father, an insurance officer, used his position to help him pay his medical bills after he and Landra had their first child. He developed a relationship with Leavitt the Younger, and Reid said the ex-governor brokered a meeting with Romney for the rapprochement last year in Salt Lake City when Reid received that award from the Mormon Church.

“He [Romney] knew he said stuff he shouldn’t have, and I said stuff I shouldn’t have,” Reid said.

“And he’s a super-nice guy.”

Super-nice. Reid on Romney.

One more note: In my conversation with Reid I raised the issue, reported in “Double Down: Game Change,” but speculated on by many including myself, that Jon Huntsman, Sr., was the source Reid had claimed he had for the tax information on Romney. Reid dodged the question, but did gush about Huntsman in the interview, saying he returned the wealthy businessman’s call when he was in Congress years ago:

“So, I called, and that was the beginning of the relationship that was unbelievable because Utah members of Congress were crap,” Reid recalled. “They wouldn’t help you at all. And I helped him so much. I mean I helped him so very, very much. He was such a great guy. I’ll give you one example. So, he had heard that they were going to endow a chair for me here at UNLV….He heard about it. He said, ‘You call, you talk to the president of the university when he has a few minutes any time in the next 10 days. Tell him to set some time aside for me, I’ll bring a million dollar check. And he did.”

Quid pro quo. The Art of the Deal.

Reid suggested that one of the leitmotifs of his tenure has been making friends of enemies such as Romney. He also mentioned how Sen. Paul Laxalt’s advisers became his after he lost to the incumbent in 1974 and how Jim Santini’s kitchen Cabinet became his backers after he defeated Laxalt’s anointed replacement in 1986. This is certainly true – Reid’s picture should be next to “no permanent friends, no permanent enemies” – but he also acknowledged his smashmouth tactics have not always worked out so well.

“On the downside, there’s some downside stuff that I’ve done,” he said. “And some of it is lasting.”

He would not elaborate.

Trump and 2020

Reid seemed positively giddy that his use of the word “amoral” to describe Trump (in the Leibovich piece) had generated so many Google searches for the definition – 4,300, he beamed.

That New York Times piece pretty much covered Reid’s disdain for the president. So I wanted to know what he thought of the president’s chances to get re-elected and which Democrats he thought had the best chance. He was unequivocal on the former and, not surprisingly, cagey on the latter.

“He’ll run, but he can’t be re-elected,” Reid said of the president. Why does he think that?

“I think that because the polling, at the best he has…about 35 to 36 percent of actual people that vote,” Reid argued. “Now, we have 25 Democrats that are talking about running. But I think people are looking for a change. I think people are tired of this….(it’s) vituperative, people at each other’s throats. People are tired of that...this tribal stuff is true.”

Reid said the Democrats should run on anything but the message he delivered to Leibovich about Trump being the worst president in history.

“That’s not going to do it,” Reid said. “Everybody knows that. Even his supporters know he’s not the best in the world, and they point to the economy is good and he’s a man of his word, but I think Democrats should focus on getting a candidate — and it’s going to come quicker this time than it has in the past because California and Texas are moving up their primaries and that’s good. It’s going to hurt Nevada [the state’s clout in the selection process] a little bit. It’ll weaken our power, but it’s going to be the right thing because I think we’re going to have a nominee out there more quickly than we have in the past.”

But what should the party’s message be? In answering, he took an oblique swipe at Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s recent advocacy for a 70 percent tax rate.

“A person could say we need to raise taxes a little bit,” Reid said. “Again, when you talk about 70 percent and all that, we have to be careful because the American people are very conservative in the sense of not wanting radical change quickly. It just doesn’t work…I think the message has to be we’re a country that is good, that’s always been good. We’re not talking about make America great again; we’re great now. And I think what we have to do is make sure we do a better job.”

Reid then pivoted to one of his proudest achievements with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whom he regularly gushes about: Scuttling proposals to privatize Social Security. And, of course, he thinks they should run on Obamacare (which I have often said should be called Reidcare because he really got it done for the president).

“Social Security is the foundation of our civilization,” Reid said. “There’s so much more we can do with health care. It’s a shame what they’ve done with Obamacare. That was certainly a step in the right direction. The Democrat has to talk about health care, restoring Obamacare or versions of it.”

Reid added that the Democrats should talk about homelessness and poverty, too. But he would not pick a favorite, mentioning only ex-Vice President Joe Biden by name, although also indicating that he thought a woman should be either at the top of the ticket or the No. 2.

Reid said he met with Biden late last year in Henderson and that he “thinks the world of the man.”

“Joe Biden would love to run,” Reid said. “But he has a lot of personal situations he’s got to get over. The death of [his son] Beau. He’s got to get over the fact of his age.”

Reid dodged my question about whether he fears his party will nominate someone too far to the left, only re-emphasizing that candidates should not be out there “bashing Trump.” Hmm.

“And as far as whether it should be a man or a woman, I’m really convinced, having served in the Senate and state and local government, all levels of government, that our legislative bodies are better now because women are in them,” Reid said. “I really honestly believe that having work done when there’s no women and work done when we have few women and now more women. So I’m not going to get hung up on whether we should have a woman or a man. I think that women are here to stay. No one is ever going to take away the power that they have now and, frankly, I believe women are more trustworthy than men, and we would need a psychologist to understand how that answer would come out, but that’s what I believe.”

Russia, Russia, Russia

On the question of whether Russia helped Trump win in 2016, Reid was unequivocal.

“No question that’s how he won. No question about it.”

No question?

“None in my mind. Zero.”

Reid is obviously still upset about what happened after then-CIA Director John Brennan called him during the 2016 campaign to tell him about the Russian meddling.

“It was in Las Vegas (so) I went down to the FBI office to get a secure line, and he [Brennan] said the Russians are messing with our elections.”

Shortly thereafter, Reid wrote a letter to FBI boss James Comey. “That was in August; I didn’t hear from him until October,” Reid said. “I wrote him another letter, did nothing. Now that’s why I was so taken aback when he was walking down the hall (more recently) talking about the Republicans…not being good patriots because they’re not talking about the Russians. He had the chance to do something about it, and he did nothing. So, yes, I blew a whistle on that very early on.”

But Reid would say later in the interview on Mueller’s probe: “I wish it gets wrapped up. We’ve heard enough about it.”

Reid, who said in April that the Democrats should not talk about impeachment, said he has not changed his mind.

“I’ve got Tom Steyer [touring the country advocating for impeachment] coming to see me,” he said. “I’m going to tell him: ‘First of all, it will not happen. Okay? Because they need two-thirds vote in the Senate and you’re not going to get it. So why do it?'”

Don’t build that wall

Reid talked during the interview about his capacity to change, naming abortion (from pro-life to supporting Planned Parenthood) and immigration (he once gave a floor speech decrying even legal immigration levels). Whether those changes were more principled or pragmatic is open to debate, but he was as fervent as anyone could be Thursday that Democrats should not compromise on the wall during the current fight.

Reid the dealmaker said he would not even try to make one with Trump if he were in D.C., saying a wall is “a symbol of failure” and would not work, that Democrats have no reason to compromise.

“I can’t understand why we don’t do a better job of trying to create better relations with Mexico,” Reid said. “Mexico is a beautiful country, great tourism. We should be doing more to prioritize our relationship with them, and all we do is make it worse. If I were the president of Mexico, I would go, ‘What the hell is wrong with those people?’”

Reid also said undocumented immigrants are very important in Las Vegas.

“What would Las Vegas do if there were no illegals working in Las Vegas?” he asked. “What would we do?...I just think that the wall is not going to stop anything.”

Reid also said that Trump would be barred from declaring a national emergency to build the wall. “By the time that gets through the courts, you’d be drawing Social Security, okay?” he told me. (No comment on how soon that might be.) “It’s been pretty established in the law that a national emergency is a national emergency.”

Reid has come a long way on the issue, as the Hispanic population has burgeoned in Nevada. He said that he went to events, including Cinco de Mayo celebrations with late Eddie Escobedo, the newspaper publisher, but he was told he was wasting his time.

“My own staff told me that (he was wasting his time courting Hispanics),” Reid recalled. “They don’t register to vote. A lot of them aren’t citizens. They don’t register. And if they’re registered, they don’t vote.”

Reid said he told Escobedo and other Hispanic leaders, “You can go out and do anything you want, have all your parties, give big speeches, but it won’t do any good until you turn out in droves to vote.” And when he ran against Sharron Angle in 2010, an ad appeared labeling Reid “the best friend illegal immigrants ever had,” Recalled Reid: “It pissed off the Mexicans here so much. They came out in droves to help me.”

And they have been a force in politics here ever since. 

Helping Kavanaugh get confirmed

When I asked Reid if it bothered him that so many Republicans and others were crediting or blaming him for Brett Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court because he had invoked the nuclear option during Obama’s term, he did not blink.

“Let me tell you, it was one of the best things I ever did.”


Obama, he said, was “treading water. He was getting nothing done. We had more than 100 judges he could not get approved. The Republicans hated organized labor. They were going to do away with the National Labor Relations Board. We couldn’t get people on that D.C. Circuit, the second most important court in the land. We had five vacancies there. They wouldn’t fill them. So remember, I am not a neophyte. I’m not the first one to change the rules of the Senate. It had to be done. We got 100 judges for Obama. We got all of his Cabinet nominations done. We took care of the D.C. Circuit, and the D.C. Circuit has been wonderful because they’ve been so…the people we put on that bench have been so good.”

But didn’t he realize this could boomerang on him, allowing for what happened with Kavanaugh?

“It didn’t take a genius to understand that it would be used, but that’s okay,” he said, adding he believes what the Republicans are doing in the Senate will backfire eventually. But Kavanaugh is there, I said. How painful was that for him to watch?

“You have to take your shots when they come,” he said of what he did for Obama. “You cannot be timid.”

How is his health?

So what is the truth about Reid, who turned 79 a month ago, and his fight against pancreatic cancer?

He acknowledged he has lost weight and that his mobility is severely impaired. Reid does not like being tethered to a walker and told me he is going to buy a motorized wheelchair very soon, adding, “like [Sheldon] Adelson has.”

“I have to introduce people and give little speeches and stuff,” Reid said. “And I think it would look better.”

His inability to walk without help is not because of the cancer but the treatment of it. Some of the story has been told already, but he was very lucky that his doctor, Frank Nemec (he’s mine, too, and fantastic), told him after a colonoscopy a few years ago that something wasn’t right but he couldn’t pinpoint it and told him to get an MRI.

So Reid called his good friends, Drs. Ike Khan and Javaid Anwar, got an MRI, had surgery at Johns Hopkins and hoped for the best because of the early diagnosis.

Reid said he has done well with some of the expected after effects – he is not diabetic – but he broke two bones in his back after starting chemotherapy, resulting in two surgeries and thus accounting for his lack of mobility. And he has regular pain in his back, too.


“Well, you know, I go back once a month to an oncologist, so I hope so,” he told me.

As for his mind, Reid’s memory seemed razor-sharp and he clearly reads and absorbs more than most people. He hesitates a little more than he used to and repeats himself a little. But he’s in his 80th year, so….

And Reid still has his trademark, wry sense of humor.

At one point during the interview, Reid saw his wife pass by, smiled, and said to her, “Hey, Lan, have you seen the devil lately?”

“Huh?” she inquired.

“Come on over,” Reid said, then pointed to me. “There he is.”

Landra smiled at me, then looked at her husband and said, “Some people call you that, too.”


(More to come Monday.)



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