Trump may not need the Kochs – but Republicans do

The US president’s escalating row with the Kansas billionaires risks damaging the party

File photographs of David (L) and Charles Koch. File photographs: Phelan M Ebenhack, Bo Rader/The Wichita Eagle via AP

File photographs of David (L) and Charles Koch. File photographs: Phelan M Ebenhack, Bo Rader/The Wichita Eagle via AP

 

Donald Trump turned his Twitter ire to a new subject on Tuesday as he took to the social media platform to criticise the Koch brothers.

In two early morning tweets, he lambasted the Kansas billionaires as “a total joke in real Republican circles”, insisting that he didn’t need their “money or bad ideas”.

Boasting that his tax and regulation policies had “made them richer”, he said the Koch brothers’ network of advocacy groups was “highly overrated” and added that he was a “puppet for no one”.

“Two nice guys with bad ideas. Make America Great Again!” he concluded.

So who are the Koch brothers?

The four Koch brothers inherited Koch Industries, the oil and refinery business established by their father in 1940, on his death in 1967. Following a bitter boardroom battle in the 1980s, David and Charles Koch bought out their siblings Bill and Frederick. The company continued its dominance in the energy industry, and remains the second-largest privately-held business in the United States.

David (78) stepped down from the business in June, citing ill-health, leaving his 82-year-old brother Charles at the helm.  

The Kochs have long been a powerful force in Republican circles, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in conservative causes. Their sceptical views on climate change have been sharply criticised by those on the left, including senior Democratic figures such as Al Gore and John Kerry.

They are the force behind a network of political organisations and advocacy groups across the country, which includes groups such as Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, the Libre Initiative and Americans for Prosperity. Most importantly for Republicans, they have invested heavily in congressional races, providing much-needed financial support and advertising for Republican hopefuls.

The row with Donald Trump seems to have arisen in response to last weekend’s gathering of the Koch-led political donor network in Colorado Springs, during which several senior figures in the organisation criticised the US president.

In widely-reported remarks, the co-chair of the network, Brian Hooks, highlighted the “tremendous lack of leadership” in Washington and the “deterioration of the core institutions of society”. He also said that “the divisiveness of this White House is causing long-term damage”.

Charles Koch appeared to temper some of that rhetoric in remarks on Sunday. “We’ve had divisiveness long before Trump became president and we’ll have it long after he’s no longer president,” he said. “I’m into hating the sin, not the sinner.”

Escalating tensions

The Kochs have always been uncomfortable with Donald Trump. They essentially sat out the 2016 presidential election, focusing their resources on congressional races instead. In recent months they have explicitly criticised his protectionist moves on trade following the imposition of tariffs on US trade partners, as well as his hardline stance on immigration.

But the escalation of tensions this week – given full expression in Donald Trump’s early morning tweets on Tuesday – is worrying Republicans.

Given the Kochs’ financial and political muscle, Republicans ignore the warnings of the brothers at their peril. Most concerning for some Republicans is their warning at the weekend that they will not back certain Republican candidates in November’s mid-term elections.

These include the Republican candidate in the North Dakota senate race, Kevin Cramer. They are withholding their endorsement because of his support for a huge spending bill this year and his failure to take on Trump on tariffs.

Donald Trump may say he doesn’t need the support or money of the Kochs, but for the Republican establishment the focus is on the long-term. The importance of the Koch family’s support as a source of revenue will remain for Republicans, long after Donald Trump leaves office.

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