By Jonathan Swan - 02/01/16 03:13 PM EST
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump to lay out first 100 days in Gettysburg speech GOP senator: Dems making ‘concerted effort to produce fraudulent votes’ Trump touts Navy expansion proposal in Pa. MORE is so fiercely opposed by the Koch brothers network that some donors believe the powerful group will intervene to stop the billionaire if it looks like he could win the Republican presidential nomination.
"They are always very hesitant to get involved in a primary, but I think if they were going to do it, this would be the time because they just hate the guy,” said a donor who attended the Koch network’s winter retreat, held over the weekend at a luxury resort on the edge of Coachella Valley.
On the eve of the Iowa causes, Koch network officials referred in a private meeting with donors to focus group research that included a range of questions including some that identify Trump’s vulnerabilities.
And some influential figures in the group — which held its largest gathering ever, with 500 donors attending the weekend gathering — believe that action against Trump would be needed if he emerges dominant out of the Feb. 9 primary in New Hampshire, where he holds a commanding lead in polls.
During a private planning session on Sunday morning, a senior Koch official ran through every presidential candidate, analyzing each one's strengths and weaknesses, said a source who attended the session.
When the official got to Trump, the tone shifted. Trump, the official said, has been on the opposite side of nearly every issue the Koch group cares about, such as taxes, trade and corporate welfare.
“There's also a constitutional piece,” the same donor added. “The president's job isn't to go up there and be a Caesar-like figure.”
The Koch official shared for the first time focus group research showing that Trump’s popularity falls when voters are shown how working people have suffered as a result of his bankruptcies and business dealings in Atlantic City, N.J. Stories of Trump's efforts to enrich himself by hurting ordinary people proved most effective at generating negative views of Trump, donors were told.
Several older donors spoke passionately against Trump in the private session, and only one donor in the room made a half-hearted attempt to defend him.
Making an enemy of the Koch network is dangerous for any Republican politician. The group, founded by the billionaire industrialist brothers, comprises about 700 donors who give more than $100,000 annually to maintain their membership.
The network has resources and technology rivaling the Republican Party's infrastructure and spent close to $400 million in 2015 on its goals to minimize the role of government in people's lives. But it also intervenes in electoral politics and will play a multimillion-dollar role in the 2016 presidential and Senate races.
The Koch network is holding off on endorsing a 2016 presidential nominee, though has narrowed its preferences down to five acceptable candidates: Marco RubioMarco RubioRubio: GOP Congress could go in different direction than Trump Poll: Clinton holds 4-point lead in Florida Republicans, it's time to stop asking 'What would Reagan do?' MORE, Ted CruzTed CruzFive takeaways from money race Club for Growth: Anti-Trump spending proved to be 'good call' Republicans, it's time to stop asking 'What would Reagan do?' MORE, Jeb Bush, Rand PaulRand PaulWhat the 'Bernie Sanders wing of the GOP' can teach Congress GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election How low is the bar for presidential candidates, anyway? MORE and Carly Fiorina.
A number of donors have been turned off of Bush recently, though, angered by the former Florida governor’s super-PAC, which spent some $20 million attacking Rubio, who aligns with the Koch network on many of its issues.
These donors wonder why the super-PAC didn’t spend more of its record fundraising haul attacking Trump.
Some Koch donors are refreshed by Trump's style and his willingness to reject political correctness and speak his mind. But his past support for tax increases, universal healthcare and other liberal issues means, they say, he cannot be trusted.
“You have to judge Trump on his past statements, and while it's clear he's been on two sides of nearly every issue, the one side he's never been on is our side,” said the donor who attended the session but asked not to be named. The conversations were held in a setting that was closed to the small number of press allowed into the resort, which the Koch network rented out in its entirety and stocked with heavy security to prevent infiltration.
Six news outlets, including The Hill, agreed to ground rules in order to cover the event, including not naming donors unless without their permission.
Trump's support for ethanol subsidies is a particular sore point. A Koch official said that Trump filled out a network policy form saying he opposed ethanol subsidies but has since told audiences in Iowa that he thinks the Environmental Protection Agency should work to increase the amount of ethanol blended into the nation’s gasoline supply. In Iowa, the federal policy boosting ethanol production is politically sacred.
Trump's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
And given the Koch group's libertarian philosophy, many donors are appalled by what they see as Trump's vision of himself as a king-like figure who believes that he alone can rescue America.
Summing up the general mood was Republican Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, who was applauded when he said in a dinner speech, “The way to make America great again is not by abandoning the Constitutional limits and saying to some guy, ‘Would you be our king?’ ”
“We can’t give Trump a pass when we don’t know what he stands for.”
Yet the dangers of attacking Trump are keenly understood — he is famously retaliatory — and a number of sources within the Koch network stressed that if an attack against Trump can be avoided, it will be.
This is not the first time the Kochs and Trump have been at odds.
The Kochs declined to invite Trump as one of the presidential candidates to attend a donor gathering last summer. The attendees were Rubio, Bush, Cruz, and Fiorina.
In response, Trump unloaded on Twitter. "I wish good luck to all of the Republican candidates that traveled to California to beg for money etc. from the Koch Brothers. Puppets?" the billionaire wrote.
Donors and officials worry that a large-scale assault against Trump could encourage him to run as a third-party candidate, which could result in Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump to lay out first 100 days in Gettysburg speech GOP senator: Dems making ‘concerted effort to produce fraudulent votes’ Trump touts Navy expansion proposal in Pa. MORE winning the White House in a way similar to how her husband did in 1992. That year, another populist billionaire, Ross Perot, ran as an independent and peeled a large number of voters away from the Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush.
There is also a concern that spending a large amount of money against Trump could help him sell his narrative of being a populist lined up against the establishment and special interests.
Conversations over the weekend suggested that there are a small number Koch figures who remain hopeful that even if Trump does become the nominee, he can be persuaded to adopt more free market policies.
Luke Hilgemann, the CEO of Americans For Prosperity, the main activist group of the Koch network, told The Hill, “If Donald Trump becomes the nominee he’s going to need a lot of help with establishing what his platform is and I think we have that platform."
“You’re going to see the nominee and the party come on board with the fact that our network is the one that’s setting the agenda for the American people, because we have actually talked to them and asked them what their priorities are.”
Koch donor Doug Deason told The Hill that while he doesn't support Trump he thinks the billionaire could ultimately stand up for "free enterprise."
“I like him OK," said Deason, a Texas businessman who supported his state's former Gov. Rick Perry’s failed presidential bid but says he is now on the verge of donating to Cruz.
"He’s a successful man."