INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — As major airports became protest sites on Saturday night over President Trump's executive order, top officials affiliated with billionaires Charles and David Koch’s political network say they’re going on offense under Trump, who they did not support during the campaign.
The Koch network is gearing up to spend between $300 and $400 million on politics and policy over the two-year 2018 election cycle.
That range of spending is an increase from the $250 million they spent in the last election cycle. "We had by far the most productive year in the history of this network," Charles Koch told donors gathered for the network's winter retreat, despite reports suggesting that the network is retreating.
"We're just getting started," he said, citing a 96% success rate in races they put money into in 2016.
Koch did not mention Trump during his short welcome speech. But top network officials seemed optimistic regarding the new administration.
Though they said it’s too early to judge the Trump administration, they already see opportunities to turn their policy priorities into law after spending the last 14 years playing defense under former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
"I think there’s been some good things for sure,” said Mark Holden, co-chairman of the Koch network, citing Trump’s early moves on the Keystone pipeline as an example. "It’s too soon to tell though… It’s only been a week.”
Holden said even though they did not support Trump during the election, he expects them to have a good relationship with the White House. Former staffers who have been affiliated with the network are now working for Trump. Vice President Mike Pence and his staff in particular have ties to the network.
Tim Phillips, president of the network's largest group — Americans for Prosperity, added that "some of [Trump's] appointments were encouraging as well."
Koch refused to meet with Trump during the election, but top network officials met with Trump's staff last year, and Holden described the discussions as "civil meetings."
But asked about specific actions that the Trump administration has taken — an order to construct the wall and an another barring travel to U.S. from certain predominantly Muslim-majority countries, Koch network officials declined to take a stance.
"We think the best way to keep communities safe is to bring people together," said Brian Hooks, co-chairman of the network's gathering. "That's how we view any action."
Pressed on if that meant the network was taking a stance against the orders, Holden said: "I don't think we are right now. They came out last night."
During the campaign, Koch referred to Trump's Muslim ban as a "Nazi Germany" policy, but on Saturday, Holden noted that the executive was different from what Trump proposed during the primary.
They stressed, however, that they would oppose the administration when they felt it was necessary. "Our bread and butter — our secret sauce — is the accountability play," Holden said.
One issue where the network is already opposing the Trump administration and congressional Republicans is: border-adjustment tax reform, which would favor exports over imports.
But it's unclear how far the network will be willing to go in blocking that proposal and taking on Trump early on.
"We’re going to have conversations with members on Capitol Hill," said James Davis, spokesman for the network. "We’re also going to look to educate our activists on this. They need to call their members of Congress and tell them they're not going to be supportive of this new tax and air their frustration."
The network is hosting 550 donors — the most to ever attend such a gathering — at a luxury resort in the Palm Springs area this weekend. These donors, who attend these events known as "seminars" twice a year, make a minimum annual donation of $100,000.
BuzzFeed News was invited to cover the gathering after agreeing to set of ground rules, which include not naming donors without their permission.
Tarini Parti is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Tarini Parti at email@example.com.
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