President Trump on Tuesday lashed out at the Koch brothers, saying their conservative political network had "become a total joke in real Republican circles" and was "highly overrated” — deepening the divide between the GOP's donor class and its increasingly populist base at a crucial time, three months before the midterm election.
The comments, which came in a series of morning tweets, were an almost inevitable response to statements by Charles Koch, the billionaire conservative, and his aides who revealed at their annual donor conference that they would not be supporting some Republican Senate candidates who are in line with Trump's tariff and immigration policies.
At the weekend summit, Brian Hooks, the co-chairman of the network of Koch-affiliated groups, bemoaned the "tremendous lack of leadership" in Washington and the "deterioration of the core institutions of society."
Hooks and other top Koch operatives pointedly criticized the White House and GOP lawmakers allied with Trump, taking particular issue with their positions on trade policy and increased federal spending.
Charles Koch, who now runs the family’s political network after the retirement of his brother David, who is ill, was somewhat more restrained, acknowledging that political polarization affected Washington and the country long before Trump entered the fray.
"We've had divisiveness long before Trump became president and we'll have it long after he's no longer president," he told reporters Sunday. "I'm into hating the sin, not the sinner."
Trump fired back in his tweets.
"The globalist Koch Brothers, who have become a total joke in real Republican circles, are against Strong Borders and Powerful Trade," he wrote. "I never sought their support because I don't need their money or bad ideas."
Trump added that the Kochs "love" some of his policies, including tax cuts and conservative picks for federal courts. Indeed, the industrialists did mobilize their political arm behind the GOP's tax reform package last year, spending around $20 million to support it.
Although they have benefited from the administration's tax cuts and deregulation efforts, the Kochs oppose Trump's immigration and trade policies, especially tariffs.
The brothers, Trump said, are now driven by a desire to "protect their companies outside the U.S. from being taxed."
"I'm for America First & the American Worker — a puppet for no one," Trump said. "Two nice guys with bad ideas. Make America Great Again!"
With his tweets Tuesday, Trump escalated a feud that has its roots in the 2016 GOP primaries, when Charles and David Koch backed other candidates. During the general election campaign, Charles Koch told Fortune magazine that choosing between Trump and Hillary Clinton was akin to deciding between cancer or a heart attack.
Even after Trump won, the Kochs and their network of affiliated groups retained influence in the White House, especially on tax and environmental policy.
Marc Short, who recently left as White House director of legislative affairs, had previously led Freedom Partners, a Koch-backed group. Short also worked as an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, who has met privately with the Kochs since becoming vice president and gave the keynote address at an event for conservative activists they held last year in Virginia.
Trump allies in Washington, a half dozen of whom spoke Tuesday on the condition on anonymity, concurred with the president's assessment that the Kochs are mainly looking out to protect their own business interests.
“Uncertainty always upsets the business community, and that’s where the Kochs come from,” said a former administration official who asked not to be named to avoid alienating either side.
Republicans still expect Koch to spend the vast majority of his money on helping Republicans. But the personal rift with Trump is not likely to be repaired.
“If you’re running the country, you’re not really interested in a couple of billionaires -- whether it’s the Steyers on the left or Kochs on the right -- telling you, ‘We don’t really think you know what you’re doing,’” said the former administration official.
Trump currently has the political upper hand over the Kochs, with Republican candidates far more reliant on the president's backing than the industrialists' largesse in all but a handful of toss-up districts and states.
One example of his ascendancy in the party came later Tuesday, as the president rallied support in Tampa, Fla., for Rep. Ron DeSantis, a conservative upstart seeking the Republican nomination for governor who has pulled ahead of a more experienced and establishment-backed rival largely because of strong support from Trump.
"Everyone needs to support Ron DeSantis," Trump said, framing Democrats campaigning in the state as "running on open borders."
He mused at one point about the power of his endorsement. "I don't do them easily," he said. "But they do seem to have an impact."
But if the Kochs' refusal to help Trump-styled GOP candidates ends up costing Republicans seats and possibly the party’s majorities in November, the repercussions could be long-lasting.
“The interesting question is the extent to which the business community is going to start to be more actively opposed to Trump policies and this move by Charles Koch and his network could be a triggering mechanism,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of a left-leaning nonprofit group called Democracy 21, which has focused on Trump’s ethics and the role of big money in politics.
“They’re kind of like the tip of the spear here because what they’re voicing is opposition to Trump’s elimination of core Republican principles,” he said.
Charles Koch and his network have the personal fortunes to push back against Trump, especially on trade and immigration, in a way that Republican lawmakers have so far been unwilling to do, Wertheimer said. While other business interests have pushed back against Trump’s trade policies, they have not done so as aggressively as Koch, he added.
Rick Tyler, a GOP communications consultant, viewed the growing rift as "emblematic of Trump's disruption" of the GOP, which, he noted, "used to be the free-market party.”
"Now,” he said, "our leaders are silent as we're getting into a trade war with China."
At the weekend gathering of the Koch network in Colorado Springs, Colo., officials outlined a $400-million spending plan for the 2018 cycle that will focus on policy issues and political campaigns. But they were also intent on sending another message to Republican office holders and candidates not to take the group's support for granted.
Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, one of the Koch groups, singled out Kevin Cramer, the GOP's North Dakota Senate candidate.
Standing in front of a massive projection of a picture of Cramer, he told donors that the candidate, whom Trump rallied support for in North Dakota last month, is "inconsistent" on issues that include spending and free trade.
Although the Kochs announced heavy spending aimed at helping Republicans hold the Senate, their network is currently working in only four Senate races and has yet to involve itself in other key races in Indiana and Nevada.
The Kochs, however, are also backing some key administration priorities, including the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh.
"Whether they like Trump or not, it's in their self-interest to keep the Senate in Republican hands,” said one GOP lobbyist in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering either side.
“So if they're not spending to help certain Republican candidates, it's probably because they've calculated Republicans can hold the Senate without them."