Election 2016

Koch Brothers' Toadies Ryan and Pence Clean Up and Cover for Trump's Violent Rhetoric

The billionaire brothers hate Trump, yet their top lieutenants have been dispatched to explain away the nominee's murderous quip.

Photo Credit: donkeyhotey via Flickr

The Koch brothers are said to loathe Donald J. Trump, the Republican presidential candidate. But you wouldn’t know it from the actions of two of their favorite toadies. House Speaker Paul Ryan and vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence are working overtime to make excuses for Trump’s incendiary comments, most recently Trump’s suggestion at a rally in North Carolina Tuesday that “Second Amendment people” could take matters into their own hands should Hillary Clinton become president and start appointing Supreme Court justices.

Charles and David Koch, the neo-libertarian billionaires who own a good chunk of the apparatus of the Republican Party, have been very good to Ryan, whose career really took off when Americans for Prosperity, the brothers’ political astroturf organization, embraced him with awards and accolades, beginning, as AlterNet reported, in 2008. And Pence has appeared as a featured speaker at numerous events sponsored by the Koch network, including many Americans for Prosperity gatherings.

It would seem that the Koch brothers and their lieutenants would like to have things both ways. They want to distance themselves from Trump’s crudeness, obvious racism and sexism and his outright calls to violence, but in order to protect the Republican hold on both Houses of Congress, their minions are acting as mediators between Trump and the broader electorate. 

After Trump made his assassinate-y comment about Clinton and the Supreme Court, Ryan brushed it off as “a joke gone bad.” But, he added, of course one shouldn’t joke about such things. “I hope he clears it up quickly,” Ryan added at a press conference following his defeat of a Trump-like primary challenger for his congressional seat.

Pence quickly stepped up to put forward a notion most commentators find laughable: that Trump was merely noting how highly motivated Second Amendment fans are to get out to vote. (Never mind that the scenario for which Trump offered his Second Amendment comment was one in which Hillary Clinton had already won the White House.)

“Donald Trump is urging people around this country to act consistent with their convictions in the course of this election," Pence said in an interview with a Pennsylvania television station. "And people who cherish the Second Amendment have a very clear choice in this election.”  

Since his nomination as Trump’s running mate, Pence has been on clean-up detail, scurrying behind his boss with the pan and broom as the Republican presidential pick drops a trail of turds. Pence, who likes to describe himself as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican—in that order,” took to Facebook to signal to military families that Trump meant no disrespect by his attack on Khizr and Ghazala Khan, parents of a U.S. Air Force captain who died in Iraq protecting his unit from a suicide bomber. The Khans appeared on the podium at the Democratic National Convention, where Khizr Khan gave one of the convention’s most memorable speeches in which he offered Trump his own copy of the U.S. Constitution. “Donald Trump and I believe that Captain Humayun Khan is an American hero and his family, like all Gold Star families, should be cherished by every American,” Pence wrote. “Captain Khan gave his life to defend our country in the global war on terror. Due to the disastrous decisions of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, a once stable Middle East has now been overrun by ISIS. This must not stand.”

Trump, meanwhile, simply complained via Twitter that Khan had “viciously attacked” him from the convention stage, where Khan said that Trump had “sacrificed nothing and no one.”

And then there was that time earlier this week when Trump declined to endorse Paul Ryan as the speaker faced a primary challenge in his congressional district. “I’m just not quite there yet,” Trump told the Washington Post on August 2, echoing Ryan’s comments in May, when he said he wasn’t “ready” to endorse Trump. (A month later, Ryan was ready enough.)

Pence swiftly rode in the next day with his own endorsement of Ryan. “I talked to Donald Trump this morning about my support for Paul Ryan and our longtime friendship,” Pence told Fox News in a telephone interview. “He strongly encouraged me to endorse Paul Ryan in next Tuesday’s primary and I’m pleased to do it.”

It took Trump another two days to find the there there when, reading from cards at a campaign rally, he issued a tepid endorsement of Ryan, in addition to similarly offhanded endorsements of U.S. senators John McCain of Arizona (who is also facing a primary challenge) and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. Both McCain and Ayotte had criticized Trump for his statements about the Khans. 

Earlier in the year, after making a show of disapproval over the GOP standard-bearer’s embrace of an endorsement by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, Ryan briefly withheld his endorsement of Trump after the latter had become the party’s nominee apparent. A month later, on the June 2 op-ed page of his hometown newspaper, Ryan threw his support to Trump on the rationale that the Republican-controlled House would stand a better chance of passing its agenda into law with Trump as president. Never mind Trump’s KKK love or his disparagement of a Mexican-American judge, which Ryan had also tsk-tsk’d.

Just five days later, Ryan had to answer for Trump’s allegation that, because of his ethnicity, Judge Gonzalo Curiel could not fairly decide a case brought against the candidate by people who claim they were swindled by his now-defunct Trump University. (Curiel is a U.S. citizen of Mexican descent.) While Ryan said those comments comported with a “textbook definition of racism,” he added that Trump “is still better than Hillary Clinton.” 

One imagines that’s also the judgment of the Koch brothers—patrons to both Ryan and Pence. After all, just last month, Charles Koch described any assertion that he would vote for Hillary Clinton as “a blood libel.”  

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Adele M. Stan is a weekly columnist for The American Prospect. Follow her on Twitter @addiestan.