The decision reflects a narrow path that the influential network led by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch has sought to walk in the Trump era: aligning with the president on some policy issues while withholding its electoral firepower on his behalf.
The network’s plan to stay out of the 2020 race was quietly relayed to major donors in recent months, according to people familiar with the conversations. It comes as the network has sought to shift attention from its political activities to its investments in education and philanthropy. Donors say they expect to discuss the issue at a retreat for top network contributors this weekend.
The network’s stance — a confluence of frustration with Trump’s rhetoric and trade policies and a desire to shed its partisan image — is not a total surprise. But it will deprive the president of the assistance of one of the most sophisticated grass-roots operations on the right in what is expected to be a hard-fought reelection battle.
The Koch operation is still expected to be a player in 2020: Koch-backed groups such as Americans for Prosperity plan to support candidates for U.S. Senate and governor, as they did in 2016, when the network pointedly declined to endorse Trump.
Spokesman James Davis said the network plans to make a “significant investment to support policy champions in Senate, House and state races, build broad-based policy coalitions, and to launch a major new initiative to fight poverty in America.”
“This is where we can make the biggest difference for millions of Americans,” Davis said.
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokesman for the Republican National Committee referred a request for comment to an August letter the party sent donors criticizing the Koch network after it announced it was considering backing Democrats.
“Some groups who claim to support conservatives forgo their commitment when they decide their business interests are more important than those of the country or Party. This is unacceptable,” the letter said, adding that the party had “been prepared for this for years” and had a stronger data and digital operation than the Koch network.
In the past year, the libertarian-leaning operation has increasingly stressed the importance of working with both parties, saying that closely aligning itself with the GOP in recent years has not netted the policy gains it hoped to achieve.
In a Jan. 2 email to donors obtained by The Washington Post, Koch network chairman Brian Hooks highlighted a list of policy priorities the network plans to tackle in 2019, including income inequality, education initiatives, an overhaul of the criminal-justice system and a permanent solution for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, known as “dreamers.”
In the letter — which never mentioned Trump — Hooks said the network plans to launch new PACs in support of those policies and work with politicians from both parties in their effort.
The snub of the president is likely to reinforce the personal divide between Trump and Koch.
At a meeting of top Koch network donors last summer, senior network officials criticized the “tremendous lack of leadership” in Trump’s Washington, saying “the divisiveness of this White House is causing long-term damage.”
Trump responded on Twitter, calling the Koch network a “total joke” and “highly overrated.”
Late last year, network officials were left off the invitation list for some White House events and briefings that included conservative leaders from other groups such as the Heritage Foundation, according to people familiar with the gatherings.
Despite that, top Koch and Trump administration officials have forged partnerships during the past two years on issues such as tax cuts, a criminal-justice overhaul and judicial nominations.
Last weekend, when Trump proposed a shutdown compromise that offered a temporary reprieve for dreamers in exchange for border wall funding, the network called it “an important first step toward a real deal.”
On Wednesday, Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden participated in a conversation with Trump and other conservative leaders at the White House about shutdown negotiations.
The network has “built a level of trust working with the White House” on issues such as criminal justice, Holden said in an interview. He noted that the network welcomed Trump’s initial proposal as a first step toward a permanent solution for dreamers and “said thank you for leading and getting the ball moving here.”
“We’ve shown working with these broad coalitions that we can get good things done, left and right, even in this really partisan political climate that we live in these days,” Holden added.
Still, senior network officials have made it clear to donors that their support for Republicans has been taken for granted in recent years and that they will be more selective about their political endorsements.
The network’s role in 2020 is among the topics expected to be discussed at a retreat this weekend in California, several donors said.
Many donors have said they want the network to be more supportive of Trump, and officials fear they will divert some funds they would normally contribute through the network to pro-Trump groups, according to people familiar with the conversations.
Among those who objected to the decision to withhold support from the president was Arkansas poultry executive Ron Cameron, a strong Trump ally, according to people familiar with his reaction.
Late last year, Cameron was invited to the White House to watch midterm election results with Trump, according to people with knowledge of the visit. The visit was arranged by Nick Ayers, formerly Vice President Pence’s chief of staff, these people said. Ayers did not respond to a request for comment. Cameron did not respond to a phone message left at his office.
Mary Beth Weiss, a Florida-based Koch donor along with her husband, money manager Richard T. Weiss, said she was displeased that the network did not back Trump as the GOP nominee in 2016. Since then, she said she has been happy with the Trump administration and was disappointed that the network criticized his tariff policies ahead of last year’s midterm elections.
But she said she remains a fan of the network and its nonpolitical work.
“The Koch brothers are amazing people doing amazing things. If that’s the direction they want to take, I’m thrilled for them,” Weiss said.
Stanley Hubbard, a Minnesota media mogul and Koch donor who supported Trump in 2016, said he was hoping the network would come around on the president, noting that the administration has been aligned with the network on certain policies.
But Hubbard said he’ll “stick around the network” even if it does not endorse Trump, saying he believes in the portfolio of work that the Koch operation is involved in, particularly overhauling the criminal-justice system.
Some donors said they share the Koch network’s stance on the upcoming presidential election.
Art Pope, a prominent donor from North Carolina, said he plans to stay on the sidelines in the 2020 presidential race until “trade and tariffs work out.”
“I see the efforts of the network, and my own, as well, much longer-term-oriented than just the next election,” said Bill O’Neill, a retired transportation company executive in Ohio. “I think we all wish that we could achieve the goals we’re trying to achieve with a little less sound and fury.”