The Koch Brothers Are Smiling: The White House Will Be Packed With Some of Their Most Loyal Servants
The Trump White House is going to be very, very Koch-y.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, billionaire industrialists and Republican mega-donors Charles and David Koch made headlines by refusing to endorse a candidate. But ads in U.S. Senate races paid for by Koch-linked independent political groups hurt the image of Donald Trump’s foe, Hillary Clinton, whom they criticized while associating Democratic Senate candidates with her. And the massive ground game of the Kochs’ well-known political group, Americans for Prosperity, helped turn out thousands of Trump voters in battleground states.
From the time Trump picked his vice presidential running mate, Koch favorite Mike Pence, the brothers’ influence on Trump World has grown ever stronger.
From transition team staffers to his Cabinet, Trump has brought numerous Koch lieutenants and allies into his inner circle. His taunting of Marco Rubio for being a “puppet” of the Koch brothers is long gone. It’s very likely that Trump is eager to work with Charles and David Koch, who represent exactly what Trump values most—wealth and power—which is also reflected in his potential Cabinet of billionaire executives. And though the Kochs may object to Trump’s Islamophobia or other select viewpoints, they stand to add to their combined $88 billion through Trump’s planned environmental deregulation, privatization, corporate tax cuts and other policies favoring the wealthy to be carried out by his Environmental Protection Agency pick, who recently sued that agency; his secretary of state choice, the CEO of ExxonMobil; his labor pick, a fast-food CEO who doesn’t believe in the minimum wage; and others.
David Koch attended Trump’s election night victory party. Then on Dec. 21, Trump had an informal chat with Koch at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida (where Koch is a member) about “preparations for his administration.”
The Kochs’ allies have been helping shape the Trump administration for some time. The liberal Center for American Progress’s political arm found that one-third of Trump’s transition team, which recommends Cabinet nominees, ambassadors and advisers to the president-elect, has ties to the Koch brothers. These transition team members include Trump mega-donors who are also part of the Koch political network, such as Rebekah Mercer, and employees of Koch-funded think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Institute for Energy Research.
Here’s a look at some of the top Koch allies who’ll be running the government very soon and what kinds of Koch-backed policies we can expect them to champion.
The Koch Brothers’ Darling
The Kochs must have popped champagne when Trump announced that Mike Pence, the conservative governor of Indiana, would be his running mate. Pence is adored by the Kochs and their vast political donor network; Ken Vogel and Maggie Haberman described him in Politico as “among the best … messengers for this new Koch brand in a field of prospective [presidential] candidates who fit some portions of the brothers’ political bent but not others.” Pence has addressed a gathering of Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs’ most well-known political group that spends millions on elections each cycle opposing liberal policies and helping elect conservative Republicans. This year he planned to speak at one of the Kochs’ donor seminars, where the brothers meet with uber-wealthy allies and pool their hundreds of millions of dollars for joint political spending, but canceled two weeks beforehand.
David Koch gave Pence’s two gubernatorial campaigns $300,000. Americans for Prosperity ran ads supporting Pence, and the Republican Governors Association, to which Koch and Koch Industries have donated a combined $10.8 million since 2003, spent $4.2 million in 2012 and 2016 backing Pence.
Pence, who may be an even more powerful vice president than Dick Cheney, will be in prime position to advocate for the issues about which the Kochs care most, including corporate tax cuts, which he instituted in Indiana, and opposition to bailouts and market regulation. According to Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., Pence will be in charge of both domestic and foreign policy. And he’ll preside over the U.S. Senate, over which Republicans have a narrow majority.
“Indiana is one big free market, [and] much like Koch Industries, Mike Pence … picks the right fights,” said Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster whose company has worked for Pence and for Americans for Prosperity. Conway became Trump’s campaign manager last August and was recently named a “counselor to the president” who will help “effectively message and execute the Administration's legislative priorities and actions.” Conway is also a board member of the Koch-aligned and Koch-funded Independent Women’s Forum, which, The Nation reports, has pushed the Koch agenda.
Several of Pence’s former staffers have gone on to work in the Koch political network, including Marc Short, who went from being Pence’s chief of staff when Pence was a congressman to president of Freedom Partners, the Koch political operation’s “central bank,” which gives out enormous amounts of money to right-wing political spending groups. Short returned to advising Pence this summer when the governor joined Trump’s campaign and will soon take a job in the West Wing, likely heading legislative affairs, according to the Washington Post.
A Grim Future for the Environment
Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general who recently sued the Environmental Protection Agency over its plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is, incredibly, Trump’s pick to head that very agency. Pruitt has called the climate change debate “far from settled.”
Texas oil and gas investor Doug Deason, who, along with his billionaire father, Darwin, is a Republican political mega-donor and key figure in the Koch political network, pushed for his friend Pruitt to head the EPA. (Doug and his wife Holly wrote a tribute to the Koch brothers last year, supported by Freedom Partners.)
It’s hard to imagine anyone whose anti-environmental policies would benefit Koch Industries’ profits more than Pruitt, who is bound to deregulate the environment and encourage fossil fuel production as much as possible, benefiting large fossil fuel corporations like Koch Industries, which operates oil refineries and gas pipelines, sells natural gas and owns tar sands land in Canada. As Oklahoma attorney general, he established a “federalism unit to combat unwarranted regulation and overreach by the federal government.” As the Chicago Tribute reported, Pruitt defended ExxonMobil against allegations that it knew about climate change for decades and misled the public; fought to restrict clean water protections; and submitted a letter to the EPA that was actually written by Devon Energy, whose corporate PAC donated to his attorney general campaigns.
Sure enough, Koch Industries PAC also contributed $10,000 to Pruitt’s attorney general campaigns in 2010 and 2014. Other top contributors include Chesapeake Energy, Devon Energy and ExxonMobil. What’s more, the independent Republican State Leadership Committee, to which Koch Industries has given nearly $1.3 million in the last decade, spent $150,000 supporting Pruitt in the 2010 race. In 2014, Freedom Partners even gave $175,000 the political nonprofit Pruitt directed.
Rick Perry is also in a curious position: He’s nominated to lead the Department of Energy, a department that he said he wanted to eliminate during the 2012 presidential campaign (and couldn’t name in his famous “whoops” moment at a debate). Perry may not have been a Koch favorite for president, but Koch Industries has directly given $111,000 to his campaigns over the years, and David Koch has contributed $75,000. But perhaps Perry’s biggest fan is Darwin Deason, who gave $5 million last election cycle to a super PAC supporting Perry.
As governor of Texas, Perry allowed the expansion of wind energy, but he supported new coal plants and has close ties to the oil and gas industry. The Department of Energy has a big focus on nuclear energy but also regulates the oil and gas industry and leads the government’s fossil fuel development.
The Center for Media and Democracy got a sneak peak at Trump’s likely energy policy by obtaining a memo sent by the head of his energy transition team, a former lobbyist for Koch Industries named Thomas Pyle. Included in Pyle’s account of Trump’s energy plan is a withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, increasing federal oil and gas leasing and green-lighting pipelines such as the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.
A Koch favorite has been tapped to lead the Central Intelligence Agency. Mike Pompeo, a U.S. representative from the Kochs’ home state of Kansas, was involved with the brothers long before his days as a politician; his private aerospace company used seed money from Koch Venture Capital, and Pompeo was president of a company that worked with Koch Industries’ Brazilian distributor.
When he ran to represent the district that’s home to the Koch Industries headquarters in 2010, Pompeo received more Koch-linked donations than any other candidate that cycle, and after winning, he hired a Koch Industries lawyer to be his chief of staff. In 2014, the Kochs funded his campaign again. The Koch Industries PAC is the single largest donor to Pompeo’s campaigns, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Pompeo is a “vigorous supporter” of the NSA’s surveillance program, wants whistleblower Edward Snowden executed, and opposes the United States’ deal with Iran. As CIA chief, it’s unclear how the Kochs’ influence will affect his decisions, but in the House he advocated for their causes, pushing the Americans for Prosperity-backed “No Climate Tax Pledge” and introducing a bill to quicken the natural gas pipeline approval process. If the Koch brothers want to weigh in, they’ll have the ear of one of their closest political allies.
Betsy DeVos, a billionaire and recent chair of the pro-“school choice” and politically active American Federation for Children, is Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Education. Aside from donating $265,000 to sitting senators who will vote on her confirmation, her foundation has contributed millions to Americans for Prosperity and to other conservative political groups backed by the Kochs. DeVos has devoted her life to pushing for charter school expansion and private school vouchers, which use public funds to pay for kids to attend religious and other schools. There is no doubt that she will do all she can as secretary to divert traditional public school funding into under-regulated charters and private schools. Both Charles and David Koch have favored privatizing schools for decades, and many Koch-funded organizations team up on school-choice projects.
Corrupt Counsel to Defend Corrupt President
Donald McGahn, a lawyer who has worked for Freedom Partners and its affiliated super PAC, will be chief White House counsel. As a member of the Federal Election Commission from 2009 to 2013, he was known for hobbling the enforcement of campaign finance laws in favor of letting big money flood politics and transforming the commission into the ineffective, gridlocked body that it is today. McGahn, who defended Rep. Tom DeLay in a money laundering scandal and in a Russian pay-to-play scandal, will have to defend probably the most conflicts-of-interest-ridden president in history. In other words, McGahn is about the last person who will help Trump dissolve his conflicts of interest or critique a president set to make private profits all around the world while in office.
Trump’s transition team has even reached outside of the team itself for additional advice from people deeply embedded in the Koch political operation. One of the Department of Veterans Affairs' harshest critics, Florida GOP Rep. Jeff Miller, may become head of that department. Trump is considering Miller for the job, and members of a closely Koch-linked “social welfare” nonprofit are advising his transition team on the matter; one employee of the group is actually on the transition team. Concerned Veterans for America, which spends millions every year, often on ads criticizing Democrats or praising Republicans, wants to privatize veterans’ health care and make firing workers easier. Trump hasn’t yet named his selection for Veterans Affairs, but Pete Hegseth, president of Concerned Veterans for America, is also on the shortlist.
And it’s not just the transition team that’s looking for help from Koch minions—it’s Trump himself. As Steve Horn reported in DeSmog, the only person Trump spoke to on the record about a big anti-regulatory act that’s been on the Kochs’ agenda for years was Phil Kerpen, former vice president of policy for Americans for Prosperity. The REINS Act just passed the House on Jan. 5.
Another Koch ally, Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Bill Shuster, is hoping to privatize air traffic control under a corporate president who, despite winning several states with the help of union voters, is no fan of unions. Shuster has already met with Trump and the Transportation nominee, Elaine Chao, and indicated that Trump is open to privatization. The congressman, who’s received $30,000 from the Koch Industries PAC since 2012, fought a federal wind energy tax credit, in line with the Kochs’ campaign targeting the program. In 2016, a Koch-funded outside political spending group, American Action Network, put $208,000 toward ads benefiting Shuster.
Shuster’s 2016 campaign manager was Andy Post, who previously worked in media relations for the Charles Koch Institute and was grassroots coordinator for Americans for Prosperity during the 2012 election cycle. He’s now communications coordinator with the Presidential Inaugural Committee.
This article merely scratches the surface of the Koch brothers’ influence on the incoming administration. With one-third of Trump’s transition team reportedly linked to the Kochs, more unfilled positions will go to Koch-linked individuals. From environmental regulation to veterans’ health care, the Koch agenda will be well represented in the White House.