Koch Network Says Trump Trade Moves Causing Long-Term Damage

(Bloomberg) -- The conservative political network led by billionaire Charles Koch opened a conference in Colorado with sharp criticism of President Donald Trump’s trade policies and leadership style, as it sought to demonstrate a desire for more bipartisan solutions.

“The policies right now are hurting people,” Brian Hooks, president of the Charles Koch Foundation and Charles Koch Institute, told reporters Saturday. “But they’re also doing very long-term damage to the country.”

Hooks, who also serves as co-chairman of the semi-annual donor gatherings that are formally called the Seminar Network, also specifically called out Trump’s no-compromise style.

“The divisiveness of the White House is causing long-term damage,” he said. “When in order to win on an issue, somebody else has to lose, it makes it very difficult to unite people to solve the challenges in this country.”

James Davis, a spokesman for the network, criticized the $12 billion Trump has pledged in aid to farmers hurt by falling commodity prices triggered by the president’s expanding trade war with China, Canada and other countries that are significant purchasers of U.S. pork, soybeans and other agricultural products.

Policy Bailout

“It’s a bailout of bad policy,” Davis said.

The network, like many traditional Republican groups, has long opposed protectionism and promoted the benefits of free trade. Charles and brother David Koch didn’t support Trump in the 2016 campaign, but the network they built has since praised his efforts to cut taxes and regulations.

The criticism of Trump came as more than 500 donors to the Koch network gathered for a three-day meeting at a luxury resort in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The network, with more than 700 donors who give at least $100,000 per year, has convened such gatherings twice annually since 2003.

“We’ve made more progress in the last five years than I did in the previous 50,” Charles Koch told the donors at a welcome reception.

Not Slowing

He stressed that he’s not slowing in his efforts to change the nation. “I am not getting weak in the knees,” the 82-year-old said.

Some of the elected officials expected included Governor Rick Scott of Florida, who’s running for U.S. Senate, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, Senator John Cornyn of Texas, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who’s running for U.S. Senate, Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, and Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who’s running for governor. All are Republicans.

In June, the network said it was planning a “multi-year, multi-million-dollar” campaign to promote free trade and oppose Trump’s moves to impose tariffs on billions of dollars worth of imports from China and elsewhere. The effort is to include advertising, voter mobilization and lobbying.

Role Downplayed

At least in the initial hours of the gathering, the network sought to downplay its role in this year’s midterm congressional campaign, even as ads paid for by the network have hammered Democrats in battleground states in recent months. Planned spending on campaign-associated activities was prominent when the network last assembled in January.

Since then, analysts and polling have increasingly suggested Democrats have a good chance of winning control of the U.S. House in November’s midterm elections. The party needs a net gain of 23 seats to do that.

“We’ve shown that we can work productively with both parties,” Davis said, pointing to work the network has done with Democrats and Republicans in criminal justice reform and other issues.

“We need to earn some trust and show that we’re going to do the right thing,” he added. “We will be able to build these really broad policy coalitions.”

Plans call for the network to spend about $400 million on state and federal policy and politics during the two-year cycle that culminates with November’s balloting, a 60 percent increase over 2015-16. In addition to trying to influence electoral politics, the network also works on education, criminal justice, workforce and poverty issues.

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