INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — The political conundrum President Trump creates for conservative activists was glaringly evident on Saturday as the Koch brothers network gathered for its annual winter donor conference.
During a news conference as three days of policy and political seminars began in this upscale desert community 150 miles east of Los Angeles, Koch political network officials gingerly handled questions about Trump, responding with all deliberate care to minimize differences and not offend a chief executive that is notoriously thin-skinned.
“We don’t get involved in personalities, and all the other stuff, that’s just not what we do," said Tim Phillips, who runs Americans for Prosperity, when National Public Radio’s Tim Mak pressed him on his views on Trump’s impact on the midterm. “The president was certainly an asset in the tax reform effort; there’s no question.”
Phillips, whose group will undertake much of the political activity to help Republicans defend their congressional majorities this fall, was seizing an opportunity to say something positive about Trump after sidestepping questions from several reporters about the president’s personal responsibility for the challenges the GOP faces in the midterm.
He was candid about the political headwinds Republicans are up against and said the energy and enthusiasm was very real. But there was nary an acknowledgement that 2018 was shaping up as a backlash against Trump’s polarizing leadership, exemplified by his provocative rhetoric and politically charged tweeting.
Instead, Phillips blamed historic trends. The president’s party usually loses seats in Congress in midterm elections.
“With politics, history is a great indicator, it just is in most cases. And, when you look, historically speaking, those in power struggle in these off years,” he said, when asked why Trump wasn’t getting more credit from voters for the economic boom and what public opinion polls show is an optimism not felt in decades.
“Breaking Barriers” was the theme for this year’s conference of political and policy organizations run by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. Officials said they expected 550 network donors — 160 for the first time, the most ever — in attendance at the tony Renaissance Esmeralda Indian Wells Resort and Spa, near Palm Springs, Calif.
“We’ve got to unite, rather than divide,” Charles Koch said, in brief welcoming remarks to conference-goers during an evening cocktail reception.
Koch officials cheered the Republican tax overhaul law, the administration’s dismantling of Obama-era regulations and the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, and announced plans to spend nearly $400 million promoting conservative policies and defending the GOP’s congressional majorities in the midterm election.
In all, Trump’s achievements revealed a first-year policy agenda that was rather conventional, and the Koch network has made sure it’s a part of the administration’s efforts and welcome in the White House so that it can help shape policy.
But Charles Koch’s comments nevertheless stood as another stark reminder of the fractures Trump and the populist wing of the GOP he represents has caused in the conservative movement.
Trump has stoked cultural and racial divisions, while unsparingly attacking political foes and critics. At times, Trump’s ire has been directed at immigrants, legal and illegal; Muslims; African American athletes protesting the National Anthem to highlight police brutality; and others.
It’s a tone at odds with traditional conservatism.
Conservatives have spent decades promoting inclusivity, sensitive to criticism from the Left and in the media that their policies of smaller government and self-reliance were predicated on a callous disregard for Americans experiencing economic or other personal hardships.
That approach was apparent in the policies being explored at this weekend’s Koch conference: criminal justice reform, reforming K-12 education, and empowering poor urban communities. “The vision I’ve described is very much an inclusive vision,” Brian Hooks, co-chairman of the Koch network, told reporters.
These policies also highlighted the substantive differences with Trump that exist in greater abundance than they would if he was a doctrinaire Republican. The Koch network does not shy away from policy differences, but takes great pains to minimize them — or at least emphasize that they have nothing to do with the president, personally.
Infrastructure is an apt example.
The Koch network leans libertarian, and is disinclined to support major government spending on infrastructure projects. As most conservative groups did, the Koch groups opposed former President Barack Obama’s stimulus bill that was to be directed toward infrastructure. Later, Obama would lament that many projects weren’t as “shovel ready” as he presumed.
Still, Koch spokesman James Davis didn’t rule out the network supporting Trump’s plan to spend taxpayer dollars on infrastructure; the plan was to be formally discussed during Tuesday’s State of the Union address. Davis did said the libertarian-leaning network would oppose “throwing money” at projects. “We don’t want to see ‘shovel-ready’ jobs repeat itself,” he said.