Donald Trump lashed out at the Koch brothers on Tuesday, calling the billionaire industrialists a “total joke in real Republican circles” and their network of wealthy conservative donors “overrated.” The presidential tantrum-by-tweet came after Charles Koch and his top lieutenants spent the past few days complaining publicly about Trump’s trade and immigration policies, and a few hours before Steve Bannon issued his own vague threat of “punishment” for any GOP candidate who takes Koch money.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but the most important fact is that this is not a new dynamic, and that despite the considerable attention the headline-ready intraparty feud has already garnered, it doesn’t fundamentally change the conservative political landscape.
The Kochs and their libertarian-leaning groups have long opposed Trump’s “America First” agenda on immigration and trade, and they withheld their full support from him during the 2016 campaign. And within the GOP, you’d be hard pressed to find two bold-faced names who are significantly further apart than Charles Koch and Steve Bannon. (Charles’ brother David recently left the family business due to declining health.) Trump is far less ideologically consistent, to put it kindly, but one of his foundational principals is that he lets no slight go unnoticed or unpunished. His “executive time” airing of grievances can hardly be a surprise.
If Bannon, with or without Trump’s help, were to somehow follow through on his promise to marshal unnamed right-wing forces against Republican candidates backed by the Koch network, it would be a major development. But given the way the Kochs’ dark-money machine works, it’s not clear Bannon could do so even if he really wanted to. And given that he and the Kochs—and Trump—share so many other goals, it’s doubtful Bannon would do so, even if he actually could. Likewise, the Kochs may hate Trump’s tariffs, but not nearly as much as they love the GOP’s tax cuts, which the Koch network spent $20 million pushing and which by some counts will personally save the brothers more than $1 billion a year.
Overshadowed by the war of words was the related news that the Koch network is currently withholding its support from a trio of Republicans who are crucial to the GOP’s bid to keep control of the Senate: Rep. Kevin Cramer, who is hoping to unseat Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota; Mike Braun, who is challenging Sen. Joe Donnelly in Indiana; and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, who is the most vulnerable Republican senator up for re-election this fall.
Those snubs should not be interpreted as a sign the Kochs don’t care about the fate of the Senate, simply that they’d prefer Republicans think twice before siding with Trump on spending and trade issues. Team Koch says it still plans to spend $400 million on the midterms, and every dollar it doesn’t spend in North Dakota or Indiana is a dollar it can spend in other battleground states like Missouri, Tennessee, and Florida, where its groups are already rallying around GOP Senate candidates.
It’s no surprise why the Kochs are dedicated to preserving Republican power in the upper chamber. Along with the tax cuts, they also can thank Trump’s GOP for massive business deregulation and stacking the courts with conservative judges, both top priorities on the Koch networks’ wish list. Even when the Kochs make a show of giving nominal support to someone like Heitkamp, whom they publicly thanked earlier this year for helping to loosen some key provisions of Dodd-Frank banking rules, it’s clear where their partisan allegiance lies. In that context, Charles Koch, Steve Bannon, and Donald Trump are all the same side.