Does Ryan’s Endorsement of Trump Signal a Koch Change of Heart?

(Photo: AP/Andy Manis)

House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks during an interview with the Associated Press on Thursday, June 2, in Janesville, Wisconsin. Ryan endorsed Donald Trump for president on Thursday.

So much for Paul Ryan’s moral high ground. For all the House speaker’s past tsk-tsking of Donald J. Trump for being a foul-mouthed meanie, on Thursday he fell into the fetid moat surrounding Trump Castle, after planting a flag of surrender with his endorsement of the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee. That’s if you believe there was ever much of a battle to begin with.

For Ryan, the endorsement means the Koch wing of GOP will get to maintain some measure of control over the Republican Party. For Trump, the endorsement could signal an alliance with the formidable political machine built by the billionaire Koch brothers, which comprises operations Trump most desperately needs for voter turnout and voter data.

There may, nonetheless, still be some tsk-tsking in the future; it’s quite possible that a deal was cut in the discussions between Ryan, beloved of Charles and David Koch, and Trump, once the Kochs’ idea of the anti-Christ, that led to the speaker’s thumbs-up.

“It’s no secret that [Trump] and I have our differences. I won’t pretend otherwise. And when I feel the need to, I’ll continue to speak my mind,” Ryan wrote in his hometown newspaper, The Janesville Gazette, on June 2. “But the reality is, on the issues that make up our agenda, we have more common ground than disagreement.”

The rationale for Ryan’s endorsement as laid out in his Gazette op-ed is one of policy: A President Trump is far more likely to sign into law elements of the Republican policy agenda than is a President Hillary Clinton. As W. James Antle III writes at The Week, “[G]iven his shifting statements and obvious disinterest in policy details, perhaps Trump will prove more malleable than conservatives anticipate.”

Those differences Ryan references include policy on trade deals, comprehensive immigration reform (Ryan favors but Trump opposes), as well as the fundamentals of Social Security and Medicare, which Trump says he would save and Ryan would partially privatize. One policy idea embraced by Ryan and his even more conservative majority that Trump is unlikely to sign onto? Legislating greater restraints on the executive powers of the presidency. It’s a fundamental conservative principle, but apparently easy to trade for an anti-regulatory agenda that Ryan expects Trump to embrace, especially on environmental protection. The Republican standard-bearer has already promised to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. “Environmental Protection, what they do is a disgrace,” Trump told “Fox News Sunday” in October. “Every week they come out with new regulations.”

Environmental regulation, it’s worth noting, is a particular target of the Koch brothers, the principals of Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held corporation in the United States. And it’s unlikely that Ryan would have made his endorsement without the assent of power-players in the political network built by the Koch brothers with the help of their wealthy friends who, like Trump, are nearly all principals in privately held corporations.

But more than anything, the Kochs, despite having spurned The Donald repeatedly during primary season, need Trump to feed their own voter-data operation, i360. As I wrote here in March, “the network of billionaire and millionaire donors built by the Koch brothers is supplanting the Republican Party as the apparatus relied upon by GOP candidates running for office.” (Politico’s Kenneth P. Vogel has the goods.)

A voter-data operation is only as good as its last set of data. i360 was built as an alternative to the RNC’s own voter-data operation, sapping the party of vital information as Republican candidates increasingly relied on the Koch-funded operation, which was superior to that of the party’s. The boon to the Kochs is that the data gathered in a contest for which their system is used stays within the i360 vault, and is not shared with the party. To sit out a presidential contest would mean taking a pass on accumulating the riches of the quadrennial national data mine. So, even if Trump turns out to be a giant loser, it’s in the interests of the Koch brothers to fire up both i360 and its voter-turnout operations (Americans for Prosperity being the most notable among them) on behalf of the Trump campaign.

NBC News, as well as other outlets, report that Trump’s present data operation is far inferior to that of Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. Trump has, in the past, dismissed the importance of gathering voter data, preferring to base his campaign on his personality, shrewdly comprehending Americans’ love for the obnoxious, but missing the importance of microtargeting, a technique used to great effect by the Obama campaign.

Despite i360 having turned down Trump’s attempt to use its data services during the primary season, and Americans for Prosperity’s denial of a speaking slot to Trump at its annual confab last summer, don’t be surprised if both entities buy a ticket on the Trump train. And one more thing: Expect a Koch-approved running mate for the GOP standard-bearer. Two governors to watch: Both Mike Pence of Indiana and Pat McCrory of North Carolina are locked in tough re-election battles. Either could help offset any qualms the religious right might have with Trump’s apostasy on the right of transgender people to use the public restroom appropriate to their gender identity. Stay tuned.

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