Charles Koch once likened the contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to being asked to choose cancer or a heart attack.
Now, Koch’s allies are helping to launch Trump’s administration, giving Charles and his brother David potential inroads with a president whose campaign they refused to support.
The president-elect, in filling out his transition team and administration, has drawn heavily from the vast network of donors and advocacy groups built by the billionaire industrialist brothers, who have sought to reshape American politics in their libertarian image.
From White House Counsel Don McGahn and transition team advisers Tom Pyle, Darin Selnick and Alan Cobb to Presidential Inaugural Committee member Diane Hendricks and transition-team executive committee members Rebekah Mercer and Anthony Scaramucci, Trump has surrounded himself with people tied to the Kochs.
“In creating the Koch network, I don’t think that we ever envisioned that we would be supplying staffers to this semi-free market, semi-populist president,” said Frayda Levin, a donor to the network who chairs the board of its main voter mobilization group, Americans for Prosperity. “But we’re happy that he’s picking people who have that free market background, particularly because on many issues, he is a blank slate, so anybody with expertise is in an amazing position to shape his agenda.”
And many more Koch-linked operatives are expected to join Trump’s nascent administration in the coming weeks, according to Trump transition-team sources. Names being considered include Koch Industries lobbyist Brian Henneberry and former company spokesman Matt Lloyd, as well as Daniel Garza, who runs a Koch-backed nonprofit called the LIBRE Initiative that courts Latinos, not to mention a handful of veterans of the Koch network’s advocacy groups who worked on the Trump campaign — from top Pence adviser Marc Short and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to ex-campaign aides Stuart Jolly, Eli Miller, Scott Hagerstrom, Charles Munoz and Matt Ciepielowski.
Perhaps more surprisingly, despite some predictions of imminent policy clashes, there’s already informal communication between the Trump team and the Koch network, and both camps are signaling a willingness to work together on issues of mutual interest. David Koch even attended Trump’s election night victory party.
How long the comity lasts between Trump and the powerful Koch brothers could go far in determining whether Trump is able to take full advantage of the complete Republican control of Washington ushered in by his stunning victory over his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
Things weren’t so agreeable during the campaign, when the Koch operation blocked Trump from directly accessing its data or its candidate forums, while the brothers condemned the first-time candidate for his combative tone, his calls for a Muslim immigration ban and his opposition to the sorts of trade policies that facilitate the brothers’ vision of unfettered global capitalism. At one point, Charles Koch compared the choice between Trump and Clinton to choosing between “cancer or heart attack,” and the Koch network did not spend any money directly boosting Trump or attacking Clinton.
Trump in turn boasted that the Kochs could not influence him because he didn’t “want their money or anything else from them.” And he blasted his rivals for the GOP nomination as puppets of the Kochs. A possible truce after Trump clinched the nomination broke down quickly, with the two sides clashing over who rejected a proposed meeting.
The Koch network, which some believed was discouraging its operatives from working with Trump’s campaign, is now seen by insiders as welcoming the chance to have allies on the inside of Trump’s administration.
At the same time, though, the network already is signaling that it intends to oppose aspects of Trump’s agenda that run counter to the brothers’ brand of small government, low-regulation conservatism, possibly including the incoming president’s $1 trillion infrastructure spending plan and his pledge to renegotiate trade deals.
Trump’s press office didn’t respond to requests for comment.
James Davis, a spokesman for Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, the central group in the Koch network, said, “We’ll try to find areas to work together to advance a free and open society and reverse the counterproductive policies that have created a two-tiered society.” He added: “We wish the new administration well.”
Setting aside the personal and policy conflicts, Trump’s willingness to draw from the Kochs’ operation makes sense in several ways.
Charles and David Koch over the past decade mobilized some of the biggest donors on the right to finance what amounts to a privatized political party — a network of donors and advocacy groups that became a leading employer of conservative operatives and policy professionals independent of the official GOP during a period when Republicans were mostly out of power in Washington.
The 1,200-employee network, which claims it will have spent about $750 million in the run-up to the 2016 election, would have been a logical pool from which any incoming Republican administration might have drawn as it endeavored to fill thousands of jobs.
But there’s an added appeal for Trump.
During the campaign, Trump railed against a Washington GOP establishment — embodied by the family of his vanquished primary foe Jeb Bush — from which the Kochs for years had worked to demonstrate their independence. And, after he won, President-elect Trump announced a sweeping lobbying ban that could be more of a deterrent for many conservative policy professionals than for Koch network staffers, who can work for years within the brothers’ network of think tanks and advocacy groups without directly lobbying federal or state officials.
“If you’re not going to pull from the Chamber of Commerce, Bush wing of the party, you don’t have that many places to go, so it makes sense to look to Koch world,” said a GOP operative who advised Trump team’s during the campaign and the transition. “Trump is looking for new blood that wasn’t part of the traditional establishment, and his presidency is already totally rewriting the Republican hierarchy. There were all these people who were locked out who are now getting their chance.”
Some former Koch staffers told POLITICO that the allure of joining Trump’s team was compounded by what they saw as the network’s retreat from the 2016 presidential race and its increased emphasis on advocating libertarian-infused policies such as decreasing incarceration and government subsidies.
“It’s less a result of Trump recruiting from the network as it is a result of the network retreating from the political field, leaving people looking for places they could go to have an impact,” said a former network staffer who worked on the Trump campaign.
In fact, many of the Koch veterans who played major roles in the Trump campaign had left the Koch network weeks or even months before joining forces with Trump, including Short, Lewandowski, Ciepielowski, Cobb, Jolly, Miller and Munoz — none of whom responded to requests for comment for this story.
Most notably, Short resigned his role as president of Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce in late February to join Marco Rubio’s rival presidential campaign, motivated partly by the network’s decision to sit out the presidential race.
Short landed in Trump’s orbit when the Republican nominee tapped as his running mate Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. A longtime ally of the Koch network, Pence had previously employed both Short and Lloyd, who later went to work for Koch Industries, the privately owned multinational oil and industrial conglomerate that is the source of the brothers’ fortunes, which are estimated at $43 billion each. Short is now helping Pence run the transition effort and is expected to fill a senior role in the vice president’s office, as is Lloyd, who is working as a deputy chief of staff in Pence’s gubernatorial office in Indiana and could not be reached for comment.
Other ex-Koch operatives, including Lewandowski, left the network on less-than-great terms, and jumped at the chance to join up early with Trump as he launched a campaign that few establishment operatives or donors took seriously.
Lewandowski had worked for years at Americans for Prosperity, where he drew complaints from co-workers and directed an underperforming voter registration initiative. Still, he brought with him from AFP undeniable organizing experience. Under his leadership, the Trump campaign brought on a number of former AFP operatives, including Ciepielowski, Cobb, Jolly, Miller and Munoz — all of whom are up for posts in Trump’s administration or at the Republican National Committee, according to sources in Trump’s operation.
Cobb is currently working for the transition team, which also is getting advice from Selnick and Pyle.
Selnick is a senior adviser and consultant to Concerned Veterans for America, a nonprofit group funded by the Koch network that has pushed to allow veterans to access private health care — a goal that Trump embraced on the campaign trail.
“The Trump transition team’s collaboration with experts like Darin is a positive sign that the president-elect is prioritizing real VA reform,” said Dan Caldwell, a Concerned Veterans spokesman, referring to the Department of Veterans Affairs. “We are optimistic that President-elect Trump will now turn these ideas into tangible reforms, and we will support him in that effort.”
Pyle, who is leading the Trump transition team’s Energy Department landing team, is the president of a fossil fuel advocacy group called the American Energy Alliance, which has received significant Koch network funding. But the group gradually has been cut out of the network, which may have given it leeway to officially endorse Trump over the summer, even as the Koch network was sitting out the race. Pyle declined to comment.
Additionally, some of the deepest pockets helping Trump have either contributed significant sums to the Koch network or attended its twice-a-year donor gatherings. They include transition team executive committee members Mercer, a hedge fund heiress, and Scaramucci, a Wall Street impresario; as well as self-made roofing billionaire Hendricks, a member of Trump’s Presidential Inaugural Committee. Family members of Betsy DeVos, whom Trump nominated last week as his secretary of education, have also been contributors to the network.
McGahn, who last week was named White House counsel, represented Freedom Partners and its affiliated super PAC — work he continued for a time even after signing on with the Trump campaign. He didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Garza, whose LIBRE Initiative is in good standing in the Koch network, told POLITICO that he is engaged in “some initial talks” about a possible role with the Trump team. But he suggested that, even if he joined the team, it wouldn’t mean that the Trump administration would get a free pass from his group. “We’ll encourage and advocate for freedom-oriented, pro-growth policy proposals and call out bad policy prescriptions regardless of party or personality.”
The first potential battle between the Kochs and the Trump administration — the one repeatedly mentioned by operatives in and out of the network — is Trump’s centerpiece infrastructure plan, which constitutes the sort of Big Government domestic spending for which the Kochs have long attacked Democratic and Republican politicians alike.
“It will be interesting to see whether AFP actually holds the line on something,” said one top Republican operative. “There really could be a Trump-Koch spat in Year One.”
Others are interpreting the Koch-Trump détente as evidence that the true allegiance of many Koch staffers was always to the Republican Party, despite the network’s attempts to cast its efforts as independent from the official GOP.
“Starting in 2006 when Republicans lost control of Congress and even more so in 2008, when we lost the White House, a lot of people just needed a paycheck to keep up with their mortgage, and the Koch network kept them afloat,” said one former network official. “That’s not the way Charles Koch saw it, but the people who were accepting the checks saw it that way. And now, there’s an opportunity for them to get off the Koch dole and get back in power.”
Then there’s the question of whether Trump will even want to collaborate.
Several operatives around the Koch network said there’s concern that the Trump administration will have no incentive to work with the network.
Even as operatives who have cycled through the network are brought into the fold, the prevailing sentiment in Trump world is studied indifference towards the Koch operation. The president-elect’s team, having won without the aid of the Kochs, feels that he can govern without them too. Unlike the campaign, when it was the Kochs who were in the position of strength, weighing whether to support or oppose Trump’s insurgent candidacy, now it is Trump and his team who are in the driver’s seat.
If Koch network officials want to work with the Trump administration, they’re the ones who need to reach out, not vice versa, said one former network official now working with the transition team.
“With the network’s lack of involvement, they essentially said that they didn’t care if Hillary Clinton was elected,” said the former official, arguing that the network has more to gain from working with the president-elect than vice versa.
Levin, the AFP board chair, conceded, “I’m not really clear how willing the Trump people will be to work with us. The Trump campaign was aware that we did not actively support him.”
While she cited “many common supporters and policy goals” between the network and the Trump team, Levin also suggested the network won’t be without recourse if Trump ignores its priorities. “We feel we have strong allies in Congress, so our power will come from maintaining the relationships we built over the years with senators and congressmen.”
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