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‘A total joke’: Trump lashes out at Koch brothers after political network slams White House

President Trump said the Kochs were being driven by a desire to “protect their companies outside the U.S. from being taxed.”
President Trump said the Kochs were being driven by a desire to “protect their companies outside the U.S. from being taxed.” (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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President Trump lashed out at the Koch brothers Tuesday, saying their conservative political funding and policy network has “become a total joke in real Republican circles” and is “highly overrated.”

The president’s assessment, made in a flurry of morning tweets, followed a weekend gathering at which top officials affiliated with billionaire industrialist Charles Koch sought to distance the network from Trump and his base in the Republican Party, citing tariff and immigration policies and “divisive” rhetoric out of Washington.

The Koch network released a video July 29, criticizing "protectionism." (Video: The Seminar Network)

On Monday, the network also announced that it does not currently plan to support Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer in his effort to unseat Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for reelection this November. That decision was at odds with Trump, who campaigned for Cramer at a rally in Fargo last month.

“The globalist Koch Brothers, who have become a total joke in real Republican circles, are against Strong Borders and Powerful Trade,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “I never sought their support because I don’t need their money or bad ideas.”

Trump asserted that the Kochs “love” some of his policies, including tax cuts and conservative picks for federal courts. But he said the Kochs were being driven by a desire to “protect their companies outside the U.S. from being taxed.”

“I’m for America First & the American Worker — a puppet for no one,” Trump said. “Two nice guys with bad ideas. Make America Great Again!”

Trump’s comments mark the first aggressive attack on the Koch network since the 2016 presidential campaign, when he criticized Koch-backed politicians as “puppets” and when the network pointedly declined to endorse him as the GOP presidential candidate.

The tension between Trump and the most powerful network of donors for the political right highlights the tortured relationship between the Republican president and the powerful network that has worked for years to help elect like-minded conservatives.

The president’s broadside against the Koch network on Tuesday came in the wake of the recent departure from the White House of legislative affairs director Marc Short, who was a top Koch network official before joining the administration.

During a television interview Tuesday, Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel also took shots at the Koch network, saying it was “very disappointing to see yesterday that they are not going to support Kevin Cramer in this all too-important North Dakota Senate race.”

“They’re ideologues,” McDaniel said of the network. “They’re not just supporting Republicans. They’re also supporting Democrats.”

In a statement Tuesday in response to Trump’s tweet, James Davis, a spokesman for the Koch network said: “ We support policies that help all people improve their lives. We look forward to working with anyone to do so.”

Under Trump’s administration, the network has gained major policy wins — as Trump noted — including tax cuts, deregulation and judicial nominations. The network spent tens of millions of dollars pushing for, and promoting, Trump’s tax cuts. And Trump’s support is crucial for some of the network’s biggest legislative efforts currently underway, including overhauling the criminal justice system and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

But the trade war brewing under his leadership breaks sharply with the anti-protectionist priority of the libertarian-leaning network — which was created in 2003 when Charles Koch convened a small group of like-minded business leaders to oppose steel tariffs and increasing federal spending under the George W. Bush administration.

At the weekend gathering of the Koch network in Colorado Springs, officials reiterated their plans to spend as much as $400 million on policy issues and political campaigns during the 2018 cycle.

Earlier this year, they announced heavy spending aimed at helping Republicans to hold the Senate. But in a warning shot at Trump and the GOP, network co-chairman Brian Hooks lamented “tremendous lack of leadership” in Trump’s Washington and the “deterioration of the core institutions of society.”

He called out the White House and Trump-allied GOP lawmakers, particularly over trade policy and increased federal spending, and added that “the divisiveness of this White House is causing long-term damage.”

In remarks to reporters Sunday, Charles Koch — now solely at the helm after the retirement of his ailing brother David this year — stopped short of blaming the president personally for the political divisions, saying the divisiveness in Washington predated his arrival.

While the network is expected to be a powerful force for the political right in some states where Senate Democrats are vulnerable, it has made clear in recent days that it will not be marching in lockstep with Trump.

In all, Koch groups are backing GOP candidates in just four Senate races right now and steering clear of five out of the eight toss-up races.

Some of Trump’s most controversial actions — including his tendency to lob attacks on Twitter — have led to the network’s decision to distance itself publicly from the president.

Yet some of the network’s biggest donors remain steadfast supporters of Trump, despite his rhetoric and his views on trade.

During the twice-annual gathering of more than 500 major donors to the network in Colorado Springs, several donors said they were generally satisfied with Trump’s leadership, and that they believe he is ultimately working toward open trade despite his policies and rhetoric.

“I’m absolutely a Trump supporter,” said John Saeman, a Republican and Koch donor from Colorado. “I think on balance, he’s unafraid, he’s willing to lead, strong, and I think he’s making Americans first, and that’s important.”

When asked about the network’s criticism of Trump over trade, Saeman said he believes Trump is taking a “circuitous” route to open trade.

“I’m not a trade expert. The argument that I do understand is that open trade is best trade, and I hope that that’s where he’s trying to go,” Saeman said. “It’s kind of a circuitous way to get there, but I think a lot of people are on notice that the unfair trade deals from the past aren’t going to stand. So, how are they going to stand [now]? Well, we’ll see.”

John McConnell, who owns a laboratory equipment manufacturing company in Missouri, said steel costs have hurt his company. He said he agrees with the Koch network on free trade and that Trump “is a bit of a bomb-thrower” on trade but that he believes the president will find a resolution.

“Arguably, and maybe this is Trump talking, arguably, there are more [tariffs] against this country than there ought to be,” McConnell said, pointing to soybean and auto tariffs.

Chris Wright, Colorado-based energy investor and libertarian Koch donor, said he did not support Trump due to his views on trade.

“Have there been a lot of anti-freedom things the last six months? Absolutely. We agree 100 percent” with the network in its criticism of Trump’s trade policies, Wright said. “Is the trade thing, the immigration thing, the rhetoric, alarming? Absolutely.”

Paul Jost, a libertarian donor based in Florida, said Trump is unnecessarily creating a trade war for political gain. He was sharply critical of Trump and said he is backing moderate Democratic candidates who are willing to challenge Trump.

“He manufactures a crisis and then he goes in and claims that he resolved it . . . The free trade stuff, he’s going to back down hopefully, but he’ll claim that he got some kind of victory,” Jost said. “I understand why Republicans can’t stand up to Trump, because their base is so strongly behind him. So somebody’s got to stand up to him, and I think it’s going to be Democrats.”