Are the Kochs Really Sitting This One Out?

Don’t let their distaste for Trump fool you—the billionaire brothers have big plans for 2016.

David H. Koch and Charles Koch.

David H. Koch and Charles Koch.

Photo illustration by Slate. Image by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Donald Trump’s shake-up of the Republican Party has not only changed the GOP’s public posture, but also caused a stir behind the scenes. Charles and David Koch—the either infamous or heroic Koch Brothers, depending on your politics—have decided to play a much smaller role in this year’s presidential campaign. As the National Review recently reported, the brothers plan to pull back on investing in Trump vs. Clinton, as well as other national races, in part because of a strong distaste for the presumptive Republican nominee. (Charles Koch even allowed that it is “possible” Hillary Clinton would make a better president than Trump.)

To discuss all things Koch, I spoke by phone with Jane Mayer, a longtime staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, which is also a history of the Koch family. (Mayer got to see another side of her subjects when she learned that they had hired operatives to conduct a smear campaign against her.) During the course of our conversation, we discussed why Hillary Clinton will never be the Kochs’ candidate, how they feel about the GOP’s changing ideology, and what reporting would be like under a President Trump. The interview has been edited and condensed.

Isaac Chotiner: Do you think the Kochs are really pulling back from 2016 and if so, why?

Jane Mayer: I think that, if you take them at their word, they are pulling back from the 2016 presidential race, but that is quite a different thing from saying they are pulling back from politics in 2016 or even spending on politics in 2016. They initially announced that they were going to be putting together a war chest with their partners, their fellow zillionaire donors, of $889 million to spend in the 2016 cycle. And that does not just mean the presidential race. They have traditionally been much more involved down-ballot in Senate races, House races, gubernatorial races, and even below that, state legislative races and now judicial races. They are spending hugely on those areas. I don’t know if they will be able to reach their target of $889 million if they cut out the presidential race in a big way, but they are still spending more than any outside group, right now, already.

The reporting has claimed they may give up on some federal races, because they feel like it hasn’t reaped them enough benefits. But is your sense that they will continue spending on them?

Oh, I think very much so. I have been doing some reporting on it. The people who are working with them say that they are extremely, sharply focused on keeping the House and Senate in Republican hands. And you can see it. They are pouring money into these races already. In Nevada, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania they are spending millions in some cases. In addition to that, I count spending in 32 House races, eight Senate races, and four gubernatorial races. This is really, truly the thing you have to keep in mind and I wished people realized it: The spending on elections for the Kochs is the tip of the iceberg. It has never been the major concentration of what they do. They spend on trying to change the way the country thinks politically. It is a subsidized ideological movement that they are paying for.

There was this quote from Charles Koch about Clinton possibly being a better candidate than Trump. Do you think they see Trump as a threat, either in terms of their business or ideologically?

Despite many requests for interviews with Charles and David Koch, they have somehow managed not to speak to me even while they are doing a charm offensive all across the country. I can’t say that they share their deepest or innermost thoughts with me. But I have certainly emailed many people around them and I know many people who have and do work with them, so to get back to the potential of Charles Koch backing Hillary Clinton, I would say the odds are greater that a meteorite will take out the planet Earth. They are not going to be backing Hillary Clinton.

If you listen to what Charles Koch actually said when he was put on the spot about it, he said, “Well, uh” and hemmed and hawed, and said that maybe they would back her if she is nothing like what she says she believes.

If she becomes Ayn Rand.

Right, then maybe they would think about backing her. But short of that, I think it was one of those slow news days.

OK, but what do you think they make of Trump, and the ways in which he is changing the Republican Party?

The Kochs are perpetually and perennially disappointed in politicians. That has been Charles’ position from the very start. Pretty much the only campaign he got excited about was the one where his brother ran on the Libertarian Party ticket as vice president and got 1 percent of the vote. They feel that politicians are just actors reading scripts and they decided after the 1980 campaign that, literally, they needed to write the script. They are never happy, and that is certainly true with Donald Trump. They were not happy with George H.W. Bush or George W. Bush. The thing is, they’re radicals. They have staked out the furthest right pole in conservative-libertarian politics in the country, and just about no one can get elected believing what they believe.

But specifically, what does Trump say that they disagree with? It’s hard to say with Trump because he changes his positions, but specifically on trade, he is in a diametrically opposite position. They are for free trade and cheap labor.

I thought you were going to say they support immigration because they support immigrants coming here and making a better life for themselves.

Well, who knows? [Laughs] Maybe they feel that too. They are, like most Americans, an immigrant family. Their roots are Dutch and they came to make their fortune and they certainly did, a few generations back. They abhor labor unions and protectionism. They own, between the two brothers, almost all of the second largest company in America, and it does a huge amount of international business. And they like no barriers.

But really, Trump is not speaking their language about government. The Kochs—in particular Charles, who is much more of an ideologue than his brother David—are just fanatically anti-government. They are well beyond where Grover Norquist was when he said he wanted to shrink government so it was small enough to drown in a bathtub. You don’t hear that language coming out of Trump, and in particular Trump has defended Social Security, and one of the reasons that the libertarian movement started in the first place was to attack Social Security. They are also hearing a few pings where Trump takes shots at rich people who don’t pay their taxes.

Irony alert.

They think taxes are theft. They are not in favor of rich people paying more taxes.

There have been reports that the Kochs are very worried about their reputation and are trying to develop a more positive profile. Do you see that?

Oh, I think it is absolutely true. The evidence is that they have spent tens of millions of dollars hiring a whole brigade of new public relations experts who are advising them on how they can fix up their image. They have been warned that people regard them as greedy. There have been tapes that have come out where one of their top advisers was talking to an investment group that works with them. “Unfortunately you are seen as greedy and self-interested. And to be successful you need to change that image.” So they have been putting much more money into things that seem like they benefit, sort of, humanity at large.

The thing that I am told by people close to the Kochs is that at the end of the day it is always about their business. And one of the things they are most worried about is that this political image they have got is going to hurt their brand. And they are terrified that there might be some sort of boycott of their products—the paper towels, and the napkins, and the Dixie cups. They do not want to see that happen.

How do you view their patronage of the arts and their push for criminal justice reform?

Oh, you know, I just have to assume that they give—well first of all it is not really “they” who patronizes the arts, it is David Koch. And science. And far be it from me to question his motives. I am just glad that somebody is supporting art and science in the country. Both need all the help they can get.

As far as criminal justice reform, it is more complicated. I wrote a piece about it for the New Yorker. I think there is a part of the political Venn Diagram where liberals and libertarians cross over. Libertarians dislike the state and liberals are in favor of social justice. I have interviewed the general counsel for Koch Industries about this. The reason the Kochs got into this subject was that they were upset about the fines imposed on them and the judgments against their corporation for their pollution record. That is far from criminal justice reform. They want to weaken the laws that regulate companies like theirs.

You faced some harassment from them. Is that in the past or are you still dealing with it?

I hope it is in the past. It was very unpleasant. But I have always felt that you can’t let that kind of thing get in the way. The bond between a reporter and the public is what matters. You have to write for your readers and tell them what’s true and let the chips fall where they fall.

We’ll see how much reporters are saying that when Trump becomes president and threatens to lock us all up.

Well, I laugh but I have to say it is a really worrisome trend. If you look at oligarchs around the world, the rights of the press are substantially weakened, and the peril that reporters are in increases. It is not a direction I want to see this country go in.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.