Last year I ran into a person associated with the Koch organisation on a street near the White House. He was absolutely delighted with President Trump’s deregulation policies. Freeing business from all sorts of senseless and burdensome government regulation has long been a goal of the conservative/libertarian Koch brothers and their far-reaching donor network. Trump was making it happen. Kochworld was equally happy when the president passed a major corporate tax cut.
Fast forward 12 months, to the Kochs’ annual meeting of donors in Colorado. News out of the confab is that officials of the Koch Network, including 82 year-old founder Charles Koch (brother David has stepped down for health reasons), are now openly at odds with the president, mostly over trade, but over Trump’s “divisiveness,” as well.
It’s not that Koch and Trump have ever been buddies. Charles Koch openly expressed his dislike of fellow billionaire Trump during the 2016 campaign and said he did not vote for either Trump or Hillary Clinton. But the midterm elections are coming up in November, and Democrats stand a good chance of taking control of the House. If that happens, a Democratic majority will throw the Republican agenda in the trash. Whatever the talk of the Kochs’ libertarianism, in a practical sense, the Koch agenda largely overlaps with the GOP agenda, meaning a Republican loss would be bad for both.
But Charles Koch, a lifetime free-trader, is apparently really, really, really unhappy with the president’s tariffs, both real and threatened. “This protectionist mindset has destroyed countless businesses,” Koch said in a video shown at the Colorado gathering.
Later, in a rare session with reporters, Koch said the Trump tariffs could possibly start a recession. And he seemed decidedly unconcerned by the possibility Democrats might win control of the House. “I don’t care what initials are in front or after somebody’s name,” Koch said. “I’d like there to be many more politicians who would embrace and have the courage to run on a platform” that is based on Koch values.
It was all very polite; Koch never mentioned Donald Trump by name. But some Koch associates were a little more direct. “The divisiveness of this White House is causing long-term damage,” said Koch network official Brian Hooks. “When in order to win on an issue, someone else has to lose, it makes it very difficult to unite people and solve the problems in this country.”
That was news enough. But more telling than anyone’s words was the Kochs’ decision not to support the Republican running in a race that could determine the party’s fortunes in the Senate. The current senator from North Dakota, Heidi Heitkamp, is in a tight race for re-election. Heitkamp’s GOP opponent, Rep. Kevin Cramer, is a first-rate candidate with a chance to take the seat for Republicans. (Remember, Trump won North Dakota by 37 points in 2016.) Despite it all, the Koch organization is happy with Heitkamp.
How significant is that? Look, for example, at the current Senate effort to confirm Brett Kavanaugh, the president’s Supreme Court pick. Republicans do not have even a single vote to spare. For the Kochs to side with a Democrat in a state where Republicans have a chance to win, and pick up an additional Senate seat, is a major vote of no-confidence in the GOP.
And a donor-class break with Republican voters. It’s an understatement to say that Trump is popular with Republicans. Recent polls have put the president near 90 percent approval with GOP voters — higher than any other Republican president other than George W. Bush immediately after 9/11. And now, one of the party’s major donor groups — the Kochs spent millions and millions and millions of dollars trying to elect Mitt Romney in 2012 — has set itself up in opposition to the Republican president.
Once the Koch news broke, the entire political world sat back and watched Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. They were not disappointed. “The globalist Koch Brothers, who have become a total joke in real Republican circles, are against Strong Borders and Powerful Trade,” Trump tweeted Thursday. “I never sought their support because I don’t need their money or bad ideas. They love my Tax & Regulation Cuts, Judicial picks & more. I made them richer.”
Not content with that, Trump continued in a second tweet: “Their network is highly overrated, I have beaten them at every turn. They want to protect their companies outside the U.S. from being taxed, I’m for America First & the American Worker — a puppet for no one. Two nice guys with bad ideas. Make America Great Again!”
During the presidential campaign, Trump almost seemed to take pleasure in blowing up Republican orthodoxies. Yet as president, he delivered on two of the most revered of those orthodoxies, deregulation and tax cuts. In those lowered taxes and slashed regulations, Kochworld got much of what it wanted from a new president it never really liked to begin with. Now, it’s moving on.