This is Part 1 of a three-part installment of ThinkProgress’ interview with David Koch.
Yesterday, David Koch — one of the richest men in America, co-owner of the conglomerate Koch Industries, and a top financier of right-wing front groups — attended the swearing-in ceremony for Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and also hosted a party for the new Republican majority he helped bankroll.
Perhaps no one has been more aggressive in exposing Koch’s activities than ThinkProgress. We first reported in April 2009 that Americans for Prosperity, the front group founded and chaired by Koch since 1984, helped orchestrate many of the first Tea Party rallies and anti-Obama protests. ThinkProgess also unearthed a memo detailing how Koch convened a meeting of executives from Wall Street and the oil industry — along with hate talker Glenn Beck and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — to plan how to win the November elections for Republicans in 2010.
Yesterday, ThinkProgress came face-to-face with David Koch, so we seized the opportunity to conduct an impromptu interview. We ran into him outside of the Capitol, where he was chatting with one of the freshmen lawmakers he helped elect, Rep. Frank Guinta (R-NH), as well as Tim Phillips, a longtime “astroturf” lobbyist and former Jack Abramoff associate now hired by Koch to lead his Americans for Prosperity front group. Koch told ThinkProgress that he expects the new Republican Congress to “cut the hell out of spending, balance the budget, reduce regulations, and support business.” Asked about the Tea Party movement, Koch cautioned that there are some extremists (indeed, Koch-funded Tea Party events have featured signs comparing health reform to the Holocaust). However, Koch said he “admire[s]” the Tea Party movement, saying that “the rank and file are just normal people like us”:
TP: Hi sir, I’m Lee Fang. I’m with the blog ThinkProgress. I’m just asking what you’re expecting from the new Congress under Speaker Boehner?
KOCH: Well, cut the hell out of spending, balance the budget, reduce regulations, and uh, support business.
PHILLIPS: Hey David, Lee here is a good blogger on the left, we’re glad to have him–
TP: Just a quick interview. Are you proud of what Americans for Prosperity has achieved this year?
KOCH: You bet I am, man oh’ man. We’re going to do more too in the next couple of years, you know.
TP: What are you planning on doing. What are your goals?
KOCH: I just told you what we hope the Congress will do and AFP is going to support that.
TP: I’m curious to know, Mr. Koch, are you proud of what the Tea Party movement and what they’ve achieved in the past years–
KOCH: Yeah. There are some extremists there, but the rank and file are just normal people like us. And I admire them. It’s probably the best grassroots uprising since 1776 in my opinion.
It’s interesting that Koch, who inherited his wealth from his father’s oil company and is now worth $21.5 billion dollars, considers himself just another “normal” Tea Party member. Despite the myth that the Tea Party represents some kind of “spontaneous” uprising of middle class voters, many of the drivers of the movement come from America’s wealthy elite. Millionaire Steve Forbes and corporate lobbyist Dick Armey own the other significant Tea Party organizing group, FreedomWorks. Cliff Asness, a wealthy hedge fund manager who attended several Republican planning meetings and Koch’s secret meeting last June, considers himself a card-carrying member of the Tea Party movement.
Despite the Tea Party veneer, Koch and other wealthy businessmen have a self-interested reason to invest in anti-government movements and Republican politicians. Koch funneled large amounts of donations into electing George Bush in 2000 (even sending Koch-linked lobbyists to help disrupt the Florida recount). At the time, Koch Industries faced 97-count federal indictment charging it with concealing illegal releases of 91 metric tons of benzene, known to cause leukemia, from its refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas. When Bush took office, his Justice Department dropped 88 of the charges and settled the case for a small amount of money. As the Wall Street Journal reported, Koch front groups largely dictated Bush’s environmental regulatory policy and Koch lobbyists gained appointments to key environmental regulatory position in the administration.
Although Bush is gone, Koch still flexes his muscle over major policy issues in the Obama era. Americans for Prosperity, leveraging its large budget and over 80 campaign operatives, coordinated Tea Party protests to kill clean energy reform (Koch Industries is a major oil company and is still one of the worst polluters in America), pass tax cuts for the rich, and to slow down financial reform (Koch Industries is also very active in the unregulated derivatives market). Koch’s vast network of front groups are also credited with successfully distorting the public’s understanding of climate change.