The rift between President Trump and wealthy Republican donors Charles and David Koch widened Tuesday as the president called the industrialist brothers a “total joke,” following their decision to withhold financial support from the GOP Senate candidate in North Dakota.
Although the Koch network has spent heavily to promote the GOP tax cuts and Mr. Trump’s Supreme Court nominees, the president said in a series of tweets that their network is “highly overrated.”
“The globalist Koch Brothers, who have become a total joke in real Republican circles, are against Strong Borders and Powerful Trade. I never sought their support because I don’t need their money or bad ideas,” Mr. Trump tweeted.
Former White House strategist Steve Bannon went further, saying the Kochs’ political operation is a “scam” that has lost influence and that Trump allies will punish candidates who accept financial backing from the Koch network.
The Kochs and Mr. Trump have never been a comfortable fit. Owners of the second-largest privately owned company in the U.S., the brothers rose to prominence politically in 2010 when they aligned themselves with the tea party movement, spending about $125 million on the election cycle that featured a conservative backlash against Obamacare and a Republican takeover of the House that has lasted until now.
Koch Industries spent $3.3 million in political contributions in 2012, then increased its donations to more than $11 million in both the 2014 and 2106 cycles, according to the watchdog OpenSecrets.org. The brothers’ network of high-level donors contributed hundreds of millions of dollars more to influence voters, including spending through advocacy groups such as Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Partners.
They also have funded the group Concerned Veterans of America, which has advocated greater outsourcing of veterans’ healthcare services, a move also favored by Mr. Trump.
But the Kochs didn’t endorse Mr. Trump in 2016. Although they aligned with him on deregulation, tax cuts, prison reform and conservative judicial nominees, they opposed part of his “America First” platform, including his hard-line stance on immigration and trade policies that have resulted in tariffs.
“It’s always been kind of an uneasy relationship,” said Republican consultant John Feehery. “They have two different visions. The president’s vision is specific — it’s against globalization. It’s ‘paleo-conservative,’ whereas the Kochs are libertarian. Obviously, there’s going to be tension between the two visions.”
He said the Koch network’s political donations “are important but they’re not essential.”
“The Kochs are important. Trump is more important,” Mr. Feehery said. “They didn’t run for anything, they just have a lot of money.”
A spokesman for the Kochs, James Davis, said the organization is “focused on uniting the country to help remove barriers that are preventing people from reaching their potential.”
“We look forward to working with anyone to help people improve their lives,” Mr. Davis said.
The president’s criticism Tuesday came in response to Koch-backed advocacy groups announcing at a conference over the weekend that they won’t spend money to help the Senate campaign of Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, who is challenging Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. Charles Koch also said his network, which has pledged to spend up to $400 million on the mid-term elections and related issues, would “hold people responsible” for not defending its libertarian principles and policy priorities.
Network co-chairman Brian Hooks took aim directly at Mr. Trump and his administration, saying “the divisiveness of this White House is causing long-term damage.”
Mr. Trump said he has made the Kochs “richer” with his policies and suggested their political advocacy is motivated by their own bottom line.
“I have beaten them at every turn,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “They want to protect their companies outside the U.S. from being taxed, I’m for America First & the American Worker — a puppet for no one. Two nice guys with bad ideas. Make America Great Again!”
Although the president targeted both brothers in his tweets, David Koch stepped down from the Koch advocacy network and Koch Industries this year because of poor health.
Mr. Bannon, who was ousted from the West Wing a year ago, said the White House and its allies will seek retribution against Republican candidates who align themselves with the Koch network.
“You take Koch money, it’s going to be toxic. We are going to let people know that if you take Koch money there’s a punishment,” he told CNBC. “If you take money from people who are against the president and are looking to put a knife in the back of the president, you are going to pay.”
The president’s former campaign strategist didn’t explain how Trump supporters would retaliate, but he said the Kochs’ influence is overblown.
“Let’s start holding the Kochs accountable. It’s a con job and they are a total scam,” Mr. Bannon said. “They are promoters and it’s a total Ponzi scheme. They never raise as much money as they talk about and no one ever knows who their donors are.”
Former White House legislative director Marc Short, now a CNN contributor who formerly worked for the Kochs, said Tuesday that the Koch brothers have always put ideology over any political party.
“I think what is important for the media and American public to know is Charles and David never wanted to be Republicans. They never wanted to be Democrats. They have always been more libertarian independents,” Mr. Short said on CNN.
The Kochs hold conferences twice a year at high-end resorts for more than 500 donors who commit to spend at least $100,000 per year.
At the conference last weekend in Colorado Springs, Colorado, leaders of the Koch network said they wouldn’t support Mr. Cramer in North Dakota because he backs Mr. Trump on tariffs. They also objected to Mr. Cramer’s support for a $1.3 trillion spending bill signed into law by Mr. Trump in March.
“He’s inconsistent across the board on these issues, and that makes it hard to support him,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity. “He’s not leading on the issues where this country needs leadership right now, issues like spending or trade.”
Said a Republican operative in Washington: “They’re sending a direct signal to Republicans whom they have supported in the past that the network is not going to be taken for granted. When they make campaign promises to get the support of the Kochs, and they don’t follow through, they’ll lose that support.”
Freedom Partners’ chamber of commerce also announced at the conference a new TV ad campaign opposing the administration’s $12 billion aid package “to aid farmers reeling from tariffs,” the group said.
The president won North Dakota by 36 percentage points in 2016, and Republicans are targeting Ms. Heitkamp as one of their most vulnerable Democrats in November. The GOP also is pressuring her to vote for Mr. Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh.
The feud between the president and the GOP megadonors underscores another unorthodox aspect of Mr. Trump’s presidency: He didn’t need their money to win the presidency, and he doesn’t care about currying favor with them.
During the 2016 Republican presidential primary, Mr. Trump criticized his GOP rivals as “puppets” of the Koch brothers and other big-money donors. He tweeted in November 2015, “@CharlesGKoch is looking for a new puppet after Governor [Scott] Walker and Jeb Bush cratered. He now likes [Sen. Marco] Rubio — next fail.”
Mr. Feehery said the Kochs’ political advocacy has targeted “policies that would affect their bottom line. It wasn’t all altruistic.”