Tuesday morning, Michael Quinn Sullivan finally released the long-awaited tape of his summer meeting with Dennis Bonnen, the speaker of the Texas House. At first listen, the recording appears to back up the basics of what Sullivan, a conservative activist and blogger, has been saying for months: In exchange for Sullivan getting in line for the 2020 Texas primary, Bonnen offers him access to the Texas House floor for the 2021 legislative session via the media credentials Sullivan has long fought for.
The saga over the recording, sure to continue now that it's been released, begins June 12, the day Bonnen and Dustin Burrows, then the head of the Texas House Republican caucus, met with Sullivan at the capitol. Sullivan, unbeknownst to Bonnen and Burrows, recorded the meeting.
A little more than a month later, Sullivan published his version of what happened on his website, Empower Texans, explaining that he felt he'd been offered an illicit quid pro quo by the speaker.
In the two-plus months since Sullivan announced the existence of the tape, he's played it for multiple Republican lawmakers and activists. They've backed up Sullivan's version of his conversation with the speaker. Burrows resigned as GOP caucus leader in mid-August, and Bonnen apologized for saying "terrible things" during the meeting but called for Sullivan to release the recording, in its entirety.
Despite Bonnen's request, as well as those from other Texas GOP leaders like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Sullivan has held the tape close to his vest, milking it for all it's worth. Until this morning, when Sullivan published 64 minutes of audio and a transcript that he says is the full and complete record of their meeting.
After some small talk about Sullivan's recent visit to the D-Day landing site in France and Indian food in London, Bonnen quickly gets down to business. He explains, as he will multiple times on the recording, that he'd prefer Sullivan limit his spending against Republicans in the primary to members Bonnen would have no problem losing.
"(L)et's not spend millions of dollars fighting in primaries, when we need to spend millions of dollars trying to win in November," Bonnen tells Sullivan. "I just wanted to see if we can try and figure that out, and I mean this in a polite way. If you need some primaries to fight in, I will leave and Dustin will tell you some that we would love it if you fought in them — not that you need our permission — but what I would love to be able to do, candidly, is kind of have — I don't want to say an agreement — but kind of an understanding, look, you want to go pop some guys, if you're asking us — which you don't have to — let me put it this way: Am I going to always make you happy? No. Am I perfect? No way."
Later on the recording, Bonnen says that Burrows "has some folks" for Sullivan to go "pop" in the primaries if Sullivan wants to. Bonnen specifically mentions Phil Stephenson, from southeast Texas, and Travis Clardy from Nacogdoches, as members he would have no problem with Sullivan targeting.
Bonnen makes it clear on the tape that Sullivan will benefit if he sticks to the script.
"(L)et me tell you what I'll do for you — real quick, you need to hear what I want to do for you," Bonnen says.
After Sullivan protests that he doesn't need anything, Bonnen makes his offer.
"If we can make this work, I'll put your guys on the floor next session," Bonnen says.
In addition to the political maneuvering — and there's plenty of it — Bonnen also describes multiple House members in unflattering terms. He calls Jon Rosenthal, a Houston-area Democrat, a "piece of shit" and implies that Rosenthal is a gay man living in the closet. Michelle Beckley, a Democrat from Carrollton, is "vile," according to Bonnen, and a Democrat whom Sullivan should target in the 2020 general election.
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Another interesting thing on the recording is that it's clear Bonnen is worried about Texas Republicans making it through the 2020 election with President Donald Trump at the top of the ticket. At one point, he says that he's fine with Sullivan coming after the likes of himself and Burrows, if he will just wait two years.
"Instead of killing each other and wasting a lot of money and energy, and I'm not being funny when I say this, and in 2022 if you want to come try and kill me and Dustin and every other person you can find, I would hope you would not feel you should or you need to, but fair. I just think we've got to get through 2020, guarantee if we try and hold this majority — which, with all due respect to Trump, who I Iove, by the way — he's killing us in urban-suburban districts," Bonnen says.
Following the release of the recording, Bonnen called the meeting a "political discussion."
“I have repeatedly called for the recording to be released because it will be immediately clear that no laws were broken. This was nothing more than a political discussion — the problem is that I had it with that guy," the speaker said in a statement. "My colleagues have always deserved the facts and context this recording provides, and with clear evidence now disproving allegations of criminal wrongdoing, the House can finally move on.”