INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — The powerful political network helmed by brothers Charles and David Koch appears to be settling into a steady — if uneasy — working relationship with the Trump White House.
Koch officials were quick to praise the Trump administration on tax reform at the network’s semiannual retreat here this weekend. Tim Phillips, president of the Koch-backed nonprofit Americans for Prosperity, called the passage of the tax law late last year a “transformative event.”
Multiple Koch network figures also expressed optimism about working with the White House in the year ahead. Koch operatives have been forging a close working relationship with President Donald Trump and his advisers to support one of their longtime passions, too: overhauling the criminal justice system.
But the sunny outlook belies the cavernous divisions between the Koch brothers and Trump on key issues that the president is expected to address in his State of the Union address this week: immigration and infrastructure.
While the Koch officials emphasized they have a direct line to the White House on immigration, they also cautioned that they won’t support severely curtailing future immigration levels, which, in a statement, one official called “arbitrary cuts.” They also said they don’t want a broader debate over immigration to derail efforts to renew the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — which is set to expire in March, though the end of the program is tied up in ligitation.
“The top priority is that there are real people right now whose legal certainty is at risk,” said Brian Hooks, president of the Charles Koch Foundation.
Koch officials, meanwhile, declined to say whether the Kochs — who have long opposed the expansion of the federal government — would collaborate with the White House on infrastructure, insisting that they’d need to review details of a package before taking a position. Koch network spokesperson James Davis cautioned the Kochs won’t support “just throwing money at projects.”
These policy battles stand to test the relationship forged between the Kochs and the White House last year, when Koch officials and the White House worked extremely closely to pass tax reform. Prior to that thaw in relations, the Kochs were unsupportive of Trump’s run for president and didn’t spend any funds to help elect him. Charles Koch publicly criticized Trump — at one point, saying his calls for a Muslim ban were “reminiscent of Nazi Germany” — and passed over inviting him to address its powerful network of donors.
Later, Trump’s first big legislative push on Obamacare was met with pushback from the Kochs, who didn’t think bills in Congress went far enough to get rid of the health care law.
At their conference a year ago, the network started the weekend by issuing a sharp rebuke of Trump’s Muslim ban proposal, saying it was “the wrong approach” and “counterproductive.” Some donors, still stung by the 2016 elections, were hesitant to discuss their results. Charles Koch, meanwhile, warned there was “an environment that is fertile for authoritarianism in the United States now.”
But the Kochs have found some payoffs to the Trump presidency.
They’re been working to squeeze the most out of areas of potential agreement with the president, such as tax reform. The Koch network spent $20 million last year to promote the effort to rewrite the tax code, and officials said this weekend they would spend another $20 million this year to sell the resulting changes to thepublic.
Americans for Prosperity’s Phillips, speaking about the $20 million plan to sell the tax code, said “there is a healthy skepticism among a majority of Americans about politics in this country” and a need to push back on “demagoguery and rhetorical nonsense” circulating about the new law.
More recently, the Kochs have been working with the White House on overhauling the prison system, a longstanding priority for the libertarian-minded brothers.
Mark Holden, senior vice president at Koch Industries, who is spearheading the work, has attended numerous meetings in recent months with Jared Kushner and his aides, who are tasked with the criminal justice portfolio at the White House. As with other areas of collaboration between Koch-world and the White House, former Koch network employees who now work for the Trump administration — such as Marc Short, the White House director of legislative affairs — served as key starting points for collaboration.
Most recently, Holden huddled at the White House two weeks ago with conservative and evangelical leaders, including American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp and Paula White, Trump’s spiritual adviser, to discuss overhauling the prison system. During and after the meeting, Attorney General Jeff Sessions — a critic of some key ideas backed by the Kochs — expressed support for some of the group’s priorities, Holden said.
“It was a good discussion,” Holden said. “And this is an issue that gets a lot of consensus among left and right.”
The Kochs are planning to throw their support behind two bills in Congress, each with bipartisan support, and announced a new research research initiative on reducing recidivism that, Holden said, grew out of the cooperation with the Trump administration.
Koch officials also heaped praise on Trump’s judicial appointments, particularly the successful appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court last year, during the semiannual retreat.
More than 500 conservative donors, each of whom has pledged to spend at least $100,000, are in attendance at this weekend’s summit in Southern California. It’s a group seeking to have major influence in a challenging electoral environment for Republicans: The network plans to spend up to $400 million on midterm races, Koch officials said.
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