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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Koch Brothers & Trump

Air Date: Week of

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) spoke on the Senate floor on April 23rd, 2018 to raise concerns about the connections between the Koch network, the Trump Administration, and Congress. (Photo: Office of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse)

As close ties between fossil fuel billionaires Charles and David Koch and the Trump Administration come more to light, Democratic Senators are demanding answers about how much influence the Koch brothers have had in shaping key federal policies, including the decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, and the shrinking of national monuments. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) speaks with Host Steve Curwood about the stranglehold he says the climate change denying Koch network has on Republican lawmakers as well.


CURWOOD: From PRI, and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. A group of six Democratic Senators has written to the Trump Administration asking it to explain its ties to the conservative fossil fuel magnates Charles and David Koch. The two brothers have claimed credit for such Administration policies as shrinking National Monuments, gutting the Clean Power Plan, killing a moratorium on coal leasing on public lands, and pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement.

And though Charles and David Koch originally opposed Donald Trump, a survey by the watchdog group Public Citizen found more than 20 senior officials in the Trump White House, including the Vice President, have ties to the Koch network. Leading the Senate call concerning undue influence by the Kochs is Rhode Island’s Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. Senator, welcome back to Living on Earth!

WHITEHOUSE: Thank you very much, Steve. It is good to be with you.

CURWOOD: Great to have you back on the show. So, Senator, how much of an influence on the Congress and the Trump administration do you think that the Koch network has?

WHITEHOUSE: Massive. I don't think there's any group that has more influence. They run a political operation that is wealthier, better prepared, more disparate, has more updated data than the Republican Party itself, and I think it's very clear to Republicans that you cross the Koch brothers’ political operation at your peril.

CURWOOD: So, remind folks of the Koch brothers’ business. Why are they in this position?

WHITEHOUSE: Well, between the gas pump and the wellhead is an enormous amount of American industry in pipelines, in petrochemical manufacturing, in petrochemical refining, and the Koch brothers and Koch Industries sits in the middle of all of that. So, they may not be the people you think of digging up the tar sands and they may not be the people you think of behind your gas pump, but in between, in the industry, they're one of the biggest players, probably as big as anybody but, perhaps, you know, Exxon and some of the huge majors. And a lot of their so-called deregulatory freedom agenda is nothing but a cover for being able to continue to pollute without any government control over them.

Koch Industries, Inc. owns petrochemical refining operations like Minnesota’s Pine Bend Oil Refinery, above. (Photo: Tony Webster, Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)

CURWOOD: Now, the Koch brothers have had a pretty long history of working to undermine mainstream climate science. Can you describe briefly how they've gone about that?

WHITEHOUSE: Yeah, very cleverly. They obviously don't want their own names on a lot of this stuff, so they have funded a considerable array of front groups whose purpose is to hide their hand. They support groups whose only purpose in life is to launder their identity and the identity of other donors off of money so you can't follow the money behind these front groups, and they have spent a lot of money infiltrating universities so that they can create a veneer of university legitimacy around some of the things that they do. The purpose of all of that is to create a broad and, to the average reader, confusing array of multiple voices all saying the same thing, and what they don't want you to see is that behind all those tentacles is the same creature.

CURWOOD: Senator, who are some of the Koch connected people in the Trump administration?

WHITEHOUSE: At this point I think ProPublica has identified over 100 of them, but they include people as powerful as the Vice President, Mike Pence, who has always been extremely close to and indeed even a part of the Koch operation. They include Mike Pompeo, who represented the district in which the Koch brothers live and where they operate. They include the legislative affairs lead for the White House, Marc Short. Kellyanne Conway used to do polling for their front group, Americans for Prosperity. And wherever you turn you see people who are infiltrating the administration out of that Koch brothers apparatus. It's to the point where it's not even clear that this is really a Trump administration rather than a Koch administration operating with the either connivance or permission of the Trumps.

CURWOOD: Now, I understand that EPA administrator Scott Pruitt is part of this Koch conglomeration.

WHITEHOUSE: He's got a long, long, long, long history. Virtually anybody else would be long gone, even in this administration, after his long trail of misbehavior that is still being dug out. So one has to look for, what is the, like, Dark Star that is controlling the gravity here so that he does not get fired. And I think this is a little bit like he's the ambassador from the Koch brothers’ enterprise, and he's hard for the Trumps to fire without having kind of negotiated his departure with that other very powerful principality. You know, one thinks of like, medieval Europe, in which one kingdom had envoys from another kingdom and you couldn't fire them at will without checking in with your rival principality.

CURWOOD: Indeed, this does sound like something's been going on for a very, very long time. To what extent is this close relationship between government and industry or very wealthy individuals a new phenomenon, or is this something that has been going on for the ages?

WHITEHOUSE: I think it's been going on through the ages but it has reached a new level of determination and sophistication recently. I can remember fighting with the lead paint industry over all the poisoning that they were doing of children in Rhode Island with the poisonous paint that they sold into Rhode Island. They had something called the American Lead Institute that they set up to be their front group. Early on when we were fighting with the tobacco industry, they set up this American Tobacco Institute to be their front group. Those are now the kind of quaint days of corporate disinformation. By comparison, the Kochs run dozens of front groups, all with very benign or patriotic sounding names, and it's a far, far cleverer influence operation than those early institutes.

CURWOOD: To what extent do you think the Citizens United decision has given the Koch brothers and others like them a - an afterburner for their operations?

WHITEHOUSE: Good word! It absolutely was an afterburner for them. Steve, I got elected in 2006. I was sworn in in 2007. For my first three years in the Senate there was a bipartisan activity on climate change all the time. My friend John McCain ran for president carrying the Republican banner on a good climate change platform. That all came to a sudden and crashing end in January of 2010 exactly when the Citizens United decision was decided and since then the Republican side of our efforts at solving this problem has completely evaporated. It was like watching one of those heart monitors and the patient died in January of 2010 and it's been flatlined since.

On April 26th, 2017, President Donald Trump signed the Antiquities Executive Order which directed the Department of the Interior to review prior monument designations, a step for which the Koch network claimed partial credit. (Photo: Official White House Photo)

CURWOOD: Remind folks, or even educate folks, who don't know exactly what Citizens United is in a few words for us.

WHITEHOUSE: Sure, Citizens United is the Supreme Court decision that said special interests have the right under the First Amendment to spend unlimited amounts of money in politics and the Congress is forbidden constitutionally from restricting their spending. They set up a few fake safeguards around that, which is that it had to be transparent, you had to know who they were, and it had to be independent, it couldn't connect directly to candidates. Certainly, political practice since then has shown that both of those premises were fabulously false. So, now we live in this brand new world of unlimited connected dark money political spending, and it has done terrible damage in Congress and to the faith of the American people.

CURWOOD: What can be done about this infiltration of politics by industry and billionaires?

WHITEHOUSE: Well, because the five Republican appointees on the Supreme Court hung their decision on the First Amendment, that makes it impossible for Congress to overturn. It is now constitutional doctrine. I think the decision is so awful that at some point the Supreme Court will relent, but in the meantime what we can do is to require disclosure, transparency. That was something that the Supreme Court specifically acknowledged Congress could do; but unfortunately the dark money power has gotten so great that for them, issue one is to make sure that they can keep doing their dark money work. So bipartisan support for addressing transparency and making sure people know who is behind the spending in our politics has also evaporated.

CURWOOD: Senator, recently you sent letters to the EPA, Department of Interior and several other agencies, as well as the White House, that you and your Senate colleagues are looking for some answers by May 15; what kind of response have you gotten? – and we're taping this on Tuesday May 8, by the way.

WHITEHOUSE: Zero. That is not uncommon, but we hope that at some point we will get some responses. I think not getting a response is a significant fact in itself. So, I'm not sorry that we sent these letters, but I do think that it is important that if a shadow government is being run within the United States by these billionaires that the public know that and not just lose faith in government without an understanding of what is causing their frustration.

CURWOOD: In the meantime, Senator, the climate continues to change.

WHITEHOUSE: Yeah. We're through 410 parts per million. That's a first in human history.

CURWOOD: So, what's to be done? What can you do in the Senate to respond to this phenomenon in the face of this kind of organized opposition?

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat, has served Rhode Island since 2007. (Photo: Office of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse)

WHITEHOUSE: Well, we're seeing a lot of signs of real hope at the state level and at the municipal level. The mayors of the nation are doing terrific work. The financial community is coming on strong. BlackRock, the trillion dollar plus investment firm, had a very significant role in breaking the back of ExxonMobil on a climate resolution that it was opposing with its shareholders, and the financial community is more and more demanding real answers from companies about how they keep their business model, given what we need to do about climate change. And we're seeing I think increasing anxiety among rank and file Republicans that they're being asked to believe and say nonsensical things. And I think they're struggling to find a way to get around the Koch brothers fortress that they have been captive in since Citizens United. So, lots of forces are moving in the right direction and I hope that before long Castle Denial falls, and I think when it falls, it falls hard.

CURWOOD: We don't have much time left, but the states have taken major leadership in the arena of climate change and, in particular, the New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman who was just forced to resign took a lead on taking on Exxon Mobil and its role and dissembling to the public about what was happening. What will happen to those cases, do you think, in the absence now of Eric Schneiderman?

WHITEHOUSE: Oh, I think that the New York Department of Attorney General will continue doing its job irrespective of who the Attorney General is. They've been working very hard on this for a long time. I do believe that all of the litigation, whether it's led by the Attorneys General in Massachusetts and New York or whether it's the children's lawsuits in Oregon in Alaska or whether it's the municipalities in Colorado and California and Louisiana, all of these lawsuits are piling up and what the denial apparatus is discovering is that they can throw their weight around in politics because of Citizens United but it's way harder to throw your weight around in courtrooms. At some point you've got to produce your documents in discovery. At some point you have to take depositions under oath. The campaign of lies and influence simply crashes in the courtrooms, and so there's enormous pressure, I think, from the American court system on this operation.

CURWOOD: Sheldon Whitehouse is a Democrat who has represented Rhode Island in the US Senate since 2007. Senator, thanks so much for taking the time with us today.

WHITEHOUSE: Thanks for having me on, Steve.
CURWOOD: Asked for comment, James Davis, Freedom Partners Executive Vice President and Koch network spokesman emailed, “Our network is committed to driving action in Washington, and we’ve made clear that we’ll work with anyone to make progress on important issues.”

Full statement from Freedom Partners Executive Vice President and Koch network spokesman James Davis:

“Our network is committed to driving action in Washington, and we’ve made clear that we’ll work with anyone to make progress on important issues. We have reached out to Republicans and Democrats alike pushing to reach a permeant solution for Dreamers, expanding access to potentially life-saving treatments for terminally-ill patients, and long-overdue reform to our criminal justice system. The American people are tired of political games and hopefully both sides of the aisle are willing to step forward to address these pressing issues.”



The Senators’ letter to the White House regarding connections with the Kochs

The Nation: “Senate Democrats Demand Answers About the Koch Grip on Trump”

Public Citizen Report: “The Koch Government: How the Koch Brothers’ Agenda Has Infiltrated the Trump Administration”

ProPublica: “What We Found in Trump’s Drained Swamp: Hundreds of Ex-Lobbyists and D.C. Insiders”

The Intercept and Documented: “Koch Document Reveals Laundry List of Policy Victories Extracted from the Trump Administration”

Vox: “The Citizens United era of money in Politics, Explained”


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