WASHINGTON (Circa) -- President Donald Trump’s feud with prominent Republican donor Charles Koch continued Thursday, with Trump defending his trade policies and seemingly suggesting Koch’s network does not spend as much as it says it does to support GOP candidates, but experts say Koch remains a powerful political force even as Trump transforms the party.
“Charles Koch of Koch Brothers, who claims to be giving away millions of dollars to politicians even though I know very few who have seen this (?), now makes the ridiculous statement that what President Trump is doing is unfair to ‘foreign workers.’ He is correct, AMERICA FIRST!” Trump tweeted Thursday in response to comments Koch reportedly made at a three-day conference with donors over the weekend.
According to Rebecca Berg of CNN, who was in the room during Koch’s remarks, Trump misstated his point, which was that China’s trade subsidies are unfair to their people and Trump’s trade policies hurt Americans. The Koch network also released a video Sunday slamming “protectionism” and its effects on the U.S.
Charles and David Koch have long been a powerful force in Republican politics, funding a network of conservative and libertarian organizations that spend hundreds of millions of dollars each election cycle. Earlier this year, David stepped down from his role due to health concerns.
Speaking to reporters Sunday, Charles Koch said he regrets supporting some Republicans who "say they're going to be for these principles that we espoused and then they aren't." Although he decried the divisiveness in politics, Koch refused to blame Trump personally for the tone of discourse.
His words signaled a shift in the network’s thinking to become more selective about candidates it supports, even if that does put it at odds with the White House.
“We’ve got a message for lawmakers across the country. We are raising the bar, raising expectations,” Koch official Emily Seidel told donors Monday, according to the Associated Press.
Trump fired back angrily on Twitter Tuesday, claiming the “globalist” Kochs are “a total joke in real Republican circles” whose support he does not need or want.
“Trump loves picking fights, and this week it’s the Koch folks,” said Gary Nordlinger, a political strategist and professional-in-residence at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management.
Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel sided with Trump Thursday, saying in a memo to contributors the Koch network's stance that it will only support candidates that fit its agenda is "unacceptable."
"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," she wrote in a memo first obtained by Politico.
The Koch network is not backing down from its position, but it is also not returning fire against Trump’s heated rhetoric.
"We have a long-term commitment to unite around issues that will help people improve their lives. Just as we have in the past, we will work together with the president, elected officials and others where we agree," Koch network spokesman James Davis said in a statement Thursday. "And, where we disagree, we will do so in a civil way. This is what it will take to make progress on the issues and ultimately create a society of mutual benefit – where people succeed by helping others."
Trump has sparred in the past with the Koch network, one of the GOP’s most proliferate factions of donors, but the latest standoff comes as Republicans stare down a map of competitive midterm races that will decide control of Congress.
Trump has continued to stoke the fires of protectionism and nationalism in his blue collar base, remaking the party in his image at the expense of the more traditional GOP stances on trade and the role of government the Kochs had aligned with. Polls show about 90 percent of the Republican Party approves of Trump, and candidates he endorses are seeing a significant bump in support.
The Koch network told reporters it is backing Republican Senate candidates in Florida, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Tennessee who believe in free trade and small government. It is reportedly also eying Senate races in West Virginia and Ohio and at least 10 House races. It specifically announced it does not plan to get involved in Kevin Cramer’s race to unseat Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota.
According to Politico, Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips told donors Cramer’s positions are “inconsistent” with the Koch network’s stances on government spending and trade. Also conspicuously missing from the list of candidates the Kochs are currently getting behind are Indiana Senate nominee Mike Braun and Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.
“I think what [the Kochs] are doing in deciding not to support some of these Republicans is that they don’t have that influence, that Trump has I guess in their view taken the party far afield of a free trade, free market approach in several key areas,” said Bob Mann, a former Senate press secretary and a professor at Louisiana State University. “This is probably an expression of either their frustration or their desire to win back some of that influence they clearly have lost.”
Although a Koch-linked organization did run ads thanking Heitkamp for backing a rollback of banking regulations, the network is notably not lining up any support for Democratic candidates this fall.
“I never thought I’d say the Koch brothers now represent the Republican establishment, but to the degree they believe in free marketsthey do,” Nordlinger said. “But all in all, the Koch brothers and Trump have the same goals, and that’s maintaining Republican majorities in Congress.”
Charles Koch may be frustrated with Trump’s tariffs and his divisive leadership, but he has given no indication he intends to scale back the $400 million his network plans to spend this election cycle to elect Republicans and promote Republican policies. Despite Trump’s criticisms, Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs for Public Citizen, said Koch money matters as much as ever.
“Certainly in terms of what they’re spending, it’s not diminished, nor are they less important to the members on Congress they support,” she said.
If the Koch network is a “total joke,” some Republicans are not laughing. According to the Washington Post, top Senate Republicans met privately Monday to discuss the weekend conference and the implications for the midterms if the network limits its support.
“Charles Koch didn’t accidentally stumble into this fight—he wanted it. At the recent donor summit, Koch officials went out of their way to highlight his warning shot to Republican candidates and disagreements with Trump trade policy,” said Daniel Schulman, journalist and author of a book about the Koch brothers, on Twitter Thursday.
The Kochs have always had a fraught relationship with Trump. During the 2016 primaries, Trump regularly accused his opponents of being their puppets. Once he secured the nomination, the network opted to sit out the presidential election entirely, devoting their funds to other Republican candidates and causes, helping him secure the congressional majority that has allowed him to advance his agenda.
Since Trump took office, the Koch network has spent big to promote his tax cuts and his Supreme Court nominees. It has also funded ads attacking senators from both parties who did not support cuts to federal spending the White House proposed.
“I’m not surprised there is concern amongst many Republicans who are up, because this is a clear, distinct food fight between these two important entities in their world,” Gilbert said.
The Trump presidency has left the Koch network and like-minded Republicans in a precarious position. They strongly back the president’s agenda on taxes, regulation, and appointing conservative judges, but they diverge completely on two issues that heavily motivate his base: trade and immigration. Pushing back too hard could cost votes in what will surely be close elections this fall.
“A big risk in these off-year elections is always the Republicans staying home, much the way the Democrats stayed home in 2010,” Nordlinger said.
Trump’s allies have slammed the Kochs as the ones betraying the party.
"Let's start holding the Kochs accountable. It's a con job and they are a total scam,” former White House strategist Stephen Bannon told CNBC this week. "They are promoters and it's a total Ponzi scheme. They never raise as much money as they talk about and no one ever knows who their donors are."
Bannon went even further, threatening “punishment” for GOP candidates who accept their “toxic” money. As long as the president and the big-dollar donors share the goal of salvaging a Republican majority, though, none of this is likely to have much consequence.
“It’s hard to come up with an example of races that have been decided by someone taking a contribution from somebody,” Mann said. “Voters say their care, they don’t like it, but it’s like 20th on their list of concerns.”
For the moment, at least, Nordlinger said the Republican Party is big enough for both Trump and Koch.
“Trump does not need the Koch brothers and the Koch brothers do not need Trump,” he said.
The Koch network still intends to spend heavily in several pivotal Senate races, and more ardently pro-Trump donors can easily fill any void their absence leaves in the coffers of candidates like Cramer.
“With so many Senate seats up and House seats that are competitive, there are plenty of Republican candidates to get support from both wings of that Republican coalition,” Nordlinger said.
Mann doubts divisions between the MAGA sect of the GOP and the Koch network will impact Republicans’ chances in the midterms, but if Trump’s trade war with China is as disastrous for American workers as some experts predict six months or a year from now, dissatisfaction could eventually splinter the party.
“Trump has the rank-and-file loyalty not so much because of trade but because of social issues, but it’s the trade stuff that might end up forcing some of these Republicans to make a break with him,” Mann said.
If Trump’s tariff strategy turns out to be successful, though, objections on the right are likely to fade.
“If countries like China end up changing their trade policies with us, Trump could look like a big hero in a couple of years,” Nordlinger said.
Campaign finance reform advocates share some of Trump’s concerns about the sway the Koch brothers and other mega-donors hold over the lawmakers they fund, but they are far less convinced than he is that he has blunted their influence.
“Democracy is not supposed to be the sport of kings and billionaires,” said Stephen Spaulding, chief of strategy and external affairs for Common Cause. “Notwithstanding the Koch-Trump feud, the Koch network continues to exert enormous influence over public policy and the Republican Party at the federal and state levels.”
Gilbert pointed to the tax cuts and other Republican policies enacted over the last 17 months that confer large benefits on the wealthy as proof that donor dollars still drive the agenda.
“The close-to-quid-pro-quo environment is as strong as ever,” she said.
Nordlinger doubts any viable GOP candidates will be hurting for cash this fall, regardless of whether they have the backing of Donald Trump or Charles Koch. However, if donors heed the RNC memo warning them not to trust Koch's network, power could quickly slip out of his hands.
“Until I see any impact on the Koch coalition's ability to raise money, I’m not going to be concerned about it,” Nordlinger said.