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Top Koch leaders vent frustration with GOP in the Trump era

“The divisiveness of this White House is causing long-term damage,” Brian Hooks, co-chair of the Seminar Network, said.
by Leigh Ann Caldwell /  / Updated 

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Top leaders of the conservative Koch political network, frustrated with the direction of the Republican Party, are attempting to rebrand the organization by vowing to be less partisan and work with elected officials across the political spectrum to advance their policy priorities.

In a rare interview with reporters, a reflective Charles Koch spoke about "mistakes" he and his network have made in the past, alluding to the strictly partisan playbook that the organization has deployed for more than a decade.

He told reporters in a short ten minute question and answer session here that he "regrets" supporting some Republicans who "say they're going to be for these principles that we espoused and then they aren't." He added that the network, which spends hundreds of millions of dollars every election cycle, will be "much stricter" when determining who to support in the future.

The shift in strategy comes less than two years into the tenure of a president who has altered the GOP by eschewing small-government ideology and just before the midterm elections where Republicans are fighting to maintain control of the House and gain seats in the Senate.

The organization is still spending tens of millions of dollars to defeat Democrats and support Republicans in the midterm elections. They also plan to spend a significant amount of money to pressure lawmakers to support Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

But the 82-year old hinted that politics might be a smaller part of their portfolio moving forward.

"We’ll engage in politics to a degree to which it's really moving our overall agenda," he said.

At the semiannual donor network weekend at the tony Broadmoor resort, Koch network officials said that the one-party focus they have pursued in the past is no longer working and they vowed to branch out to find “broad-base coalitions.”

The new approach is about both tone and policy. They point to a breakdown of political discussion that has led to deep divisions throughout the country. And they say they’ve seen “setbacks” over the past 18 months that have done little to advance their vision of a country with a smaller government footprint.

As for the tenor of the day's political discourse, they say there is little leadership at the top.

When asked if he blames the president for divisiveness, Koch said, "I’m into hating the sin not the sinner."

But his top brass were more direct.

“The divisiveness of this White House is causing long-term damage,” Brian Hooks, co-chair of the Seminar Network, told reporters. “And so that’s why we say there’s a lack of leadership and there’s an opportunity for this network to step up and express a positive vision on the issues to help people improve their lives."

"You see this on trade," Hooks said. "In order to get to a good place on the debate, you have to convince the American people that trade is bad. You see it on immigration, in order to get to a good policy," Hooks said, "you have to convince people that immigrants are bad. That’s not a sustainable tactic or achieving good policy."

Charles Koch said he and his network are to blame too, adding, "We’re all part of that. None of us are perfect and none of us fully embrace mutual benefit and equal rights."

As for policy, the network praises the GOP-passed tax reform and the vibrant economy, but they say there are equally disastrous policies being advanced.

The libertarian-leaning organization, made up of numerous non-profits and political groups, adamantly opposes President Donald Trump’s use of tariffs to advance his trade goals. They say protectionist policies are wrong-headed and will do "long-term damage" to the economy. And they have decried Congress' $1.3 trillion spending bill, the largest in the government's history.

When asked if the organization is disappointed with Republicans, Brent Gardner, head of government affairs for Americans for Prosperity exclaimed, "Oh yeah!"

"We’re horrified by the spending. Absolutely horrified," Gardner said. "This is something run-on, and run-from when it’s time to take votes."

Organization leaders also call the separation of families at the border "abhorrent" and admonish Congress and the president for failing to find a solution to protect Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.

As a result of those policies, organization officials say they will no longer sit by and just accept what GOP puts forth as its legislative agenda.

“If we continue to do that, we’re just going to slow the decline of the country rather than change the trajectory of the country,” James Davis, a vice president in the organization, said.

They note that the associated groups spent millions of dollars against House Speaker Paul Ryan's attempt to advance a border adjustment tax in tax reform. And they thanked Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota for supporting a rollback of regulations in the Dodd-Frank banking bill. Heitkamp is facing a tough re-election against Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer.

Not all of the donors in the network are critical of the president or his tactics.

John DeBlasio, founder of a private equity investment firm from Illinois, said Trump will get "better trade deals" because of his methods if he is able to follow through. And Doug Deason, a major Texas donor and president of the Deason Capital Services, said that he "loves" Trump's tactics.

"On this particular issue," Deason said, "I like what he's doing. I think we've had very unfair trade over the last 40 years." Deason is also co-chair of Trump's campaign arm, America First, in Texas.

And the libertarian leaning group is planning to spend $300-$400 million dollars on advancing their policy objectives and electing like-minded lawmakers, most of whom are Republican.

Just last week they released a $1.7 million attack ad against Sen. Claire McCaskill, R-Mo., one of the ten Democratic senators working to win re-election in a state that Trump won in 2016.

And the network’s brass is reluctant to aggressively call out Trump even as they’ve never been a fan of the president. The group, which spent nearly $400 million to elect Mitt Romney in the 2012 election, sat on the sidelines in 2016.

Now, they say they work with the president when he has the right policies. They praise him for his work on criminal justice reform, including his pardoning of Alice Johnson, an Alabama woman who had been sentenced to life in prison for a drug-trafficking offense.

They also have praise for Democrats on criminal justice reform and supporting Right to Try legislation that allows terminally ill patients to try drugs not yet approved by the FDA.

Gardner said that if Democrats don't ultimately vote the right way on their issues, at least "we can have a discussion that can lead to a more productive relationship."

The officials say the donors, who must contribute at least $100,000 per year to attend the seminar agree that a strictly partisan game isn’t working (NBC News accepted an invitation to cover the gathering by agreeing not to report the names of donor attendees without the person's permission).

A fertile ground for fundraising, nearly a dozen elected officials are in attendance, including two who are running to win Senate seats in 2018: Florida Governor Rick Scott and Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.

It's the first seminar without David Koch who stepped aside earlier this year for health reasons, leaving the network leadership solely to Charles Koch, who told attendees he's not lost his step.

"I am not getting weak in the knees," the 82-year old Charles Koch reassured the 500 donors, including more than 100 first-time donors.

Emblematic of their shift in strategy, the organization this weekend focused attention on non-profits that they've partnered with and financially helped that are lifting up the disenfranchised, the addicted and more.

They brought a the staff and founder of a Dallas-based non-profit restaurant, Cafe Momentum, which trains and employs teens who are recently released from juvenile detention. A dozen kids traveled here and will cook and serve the donors one of their meals and tell their story.

In an attempt to expand speech on college campuses, the network, which funds conservative professors, will now publish every grant agreement reached with a university online so the public can see the terms of the deal.

"Get rid of our mistakes, learn from them and try to do better. That’s what we’re going to do," Koch said.

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