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'Kochland': How The Koch Brothers Changed U.S. Corporate And Political Power


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The Koch brothers, Charles and David, are famous for the wealth they've amassed through Koch Industries - together they're worth more than $100 billion - and for creating a powerful political influence network. The network is designed to amplify messages pushed by Koch Industries, support legislation that favors Koch's needs and goals and defeat legislation that stands in the way of Koch profits. Koch has used this network to prevent or try to dismantle regulations that affect the businesses.

Koch Industries has its roots in the fossil fuel industry, and the Kochs have fought against regulating greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. Charles Koch has even tried to remake the Republican Party, according to the new book "Kochland: The Secret History Of Koch Industries And Corporate Power In America." My guest is the author, Christopher Leonard. He's a business reporter who covered agribusiness for the AP from 2005 to 2012.

Christopher Leonard, welcome to FRESH AIR. A lot of people have focused on the politics of the Koch brothers; the large part of your book is focused on the business end of the Koch brothers - how they built their fortunes, the ways they manipulated politics to enlarge their fortune. So I want to start by talking with you about the business end of Koch Industries. Why did you want to focus on that part?

CHRISTOPHER LEONARD: What drew me to this corporation was the realization that the story of Koch Industries over the last 50 years really is a history of American capitalism during that time. You can explore our entire economy by telling the story of this one corporation. And the reason for that is because Koch Industries is really the hidden giant of the American economy. This is a massive company whose annual revenues are larger than that of Facebook, Goldman Sachs and U.S. Steel combined.

And it's not just the size of Koch that makes it important; it's the company's reach into our daily lives. This is a firm that specializes in the kinds of businesses that are vital to modern civilization, the kind of businesses you couldn't boycott even if you wanted to. Koch refines and sells the gasoline people use to drive to work. It makes the building materials and the walls and structures of our houses and offices. It makes the clothing materials and diapers and Lycra spandex.

It's one of the world's largest producers of nitrogen fertilizer, which is one of those products that nobody thinks they really use, but nitrogen fertilizer is the bedrock of our modern food system, so you use it indirectly if you eat. This company is spread throughout our entire economic system. And for that reason, when you talk about Koch Industries, you're talking about our whole economy.

You're talking about blue-collar manufacturing workers who've watched their labor unions get torn apart and who are earning less money today than they were in the 1980s in some cases. You're talking about private equity deal-makers, for example, who work at Koch and who are out there looking for smaller companies to buy, which they load up with debt and then cut costs and increase production.

And finally, you're talking about one of the largest corporate lobbying operations in the United States, I think a corporate influence machine that's really unrivaled by any corporate America, and shines a light on this fact that corporations have this level of influence over our public policy and our laws that they haven't had in 100 years.

GROSS: Now, you said we couldn't boycott these products even if we wanted to because they're so embedded in the infrastructure. But also, like, Koch's name isn't on most of the products that it makes. For example, Koch owns Georgia-Pacific, which makes - you know, it - the products that it makes includes, like, paper plates and tissues, paper towels. But at the same time, it's a huge, like - what? - like, wood and pulp industry.

LEONARD: That's exactly right. It's - I'm sitting here in a studio; Koch Industries probably had a hand in making the wall panels I'm looking at right now. The lights are on; Koch probably played at some level in the business of delivering the natural gas, the electricity that is making that happen. The clothing I'm wearing has items from Koch in it. This is an omnipresent firm. You just don't see the brand name on it.

GROSS: Since Koch Industries has taken over, like, bought so many other companies and its reach is so far now, is the word conglomerate an adequate word to describe Koch Industries? I couldn't think of a word that really described what I was reading about in your book.

LEONARD: I think conglomerate is a good way to get at it, but the term I use is a private equity firm, and this really reflects what's going on in the American economy today. You know, you've heard about these private equity companies. What they are is just a big pool of capital. I think of Koch Industries as a giant pool of money that is looking to invest itself and reinvest itself constantly to boost long-term profitability.

So this is a firm always looking to acquire, expand, reinvest and grow, and it transforms. I mean, the Koch Industry that exists today in 2019 is very different from the Koch Industries that existed in the year 2000. You see some of the same skeletal framework that's always going to be there - large oil refineries, large commodities operations - but the company is always changing and growing.

GROSS: One of the things that enabled Koch Industries to grow is that it refused to be taken public. In 1981, Morgan Stanley wanted to take it public, to put it on the exchange, open it up for shareholders. And Charles Koch refused to do that. Why did he decline and what were the advantages of staying a private company?

LEONARD: So the prologue of the book is called "The Fighter," and that's really how I've come to see Charles Koch. Charles Koch has a very specific vision of how corporations should be run. And I should point out, Charles Koch has been CEO of Koch Industries for 50 years, more than 50 years. He got the job when Lyndon Johnson was president. And Charles Koch is determined to run his company with a long-term strategic horizon. That is absolutely key to this company's strategic DNA, is thinking over the long term.

And, you know, as you say, back in the 1980s, it would have been common sense for Koch Industries to go public. That's what a lot of companies did at the time. And when those bankers flew from New York to Wichita and pitched Charles Koch the option of going public, he could have earned millions of dollars overnight in payments for doing that, but he refused because he knew that, in going public, he would all of a sudden become - made subject to these very short-term incentives.

You know, public companies are on this treadmill of looking at their performance over the next three months. So much energy of corporate leaders and investors is focused on what's happening at the next three months. And the Koch Industry's executives and the traders I interview just almost laugh at that. This is a company whose strategic horizon is based on two years, five years, sometimes even 10 years out. And what you see again and again is that this gave Koch the opportunity to exploit opportunities that other people were missing.

GROSS: What was Koch Industries like when Charles and David Koch took it over from their father? What was the industry then?

LEONARD: So the industry then was much smaller and less coordinated than it is today. You know, Charles Koch tried not to work for the family company. He was born and raised in Wichita with four brothers. He had a very - what I would describe as an overbearing father named Fred Koch. Charles Koch tried to get out of that orbit. He went to the East Coast, but his dad pulled him back to work for the family company. And then his father, Fred Koch, died of a heart attack in November of 1967. Charles Koch was 32 years old at the time. And the corporation that he essentially inherited control of was this kind of motley collection.

There was a large share of ownership in an oil refinery. There was a very large network of oil-gathering infrastructures. Koch was the largest gatherer of crude oil in the United States, by which I mean it would go out to these oil wells, pick up the oil, take it to market. Then you had these engineering companies and some ranches. It was an unwieldy corporate machine. And almost instantaneously, Charles Koch surrounded himself with a small group of executives. And they began to restructure and redraw this corporate enterprise and turn it into a highly coordinated machine focused on growth.

GROSS: I should mention here that later we'll get to the politics of the Koch brothers and Koch Industries because they've done a lot of political work to make sure that there's no legislation inhibiting their goals. And that includes trying to prevent the passage of legislation that limits greenhouse gas emissions.

So in order to create and build this huge collection of businesses owned by the Koch brothers, including, like, just, like, buying them through private equity, they created a veil of secrecy - you call it the corporate veil - to protect Koch Industries in case any one of these individual companies fails and goes into debt. So can you talk a little bit about that corporate veil, how it works and how it protects Koch Industries?

LEONARD: Yeah. This is vital to understanding how Koch really grew during the 2000s. That's when you saw this era of explosive growth. So around the year 2000, Koch Industries focused on building this kind of legal structure called a corporate veil. And the corporate veil is like a brick wall or a brick silo that keeps one business separate from another. So let's say we buy a tire company, OK? If we put a strong corporate veil around that tire company, if the tire company goes broke, the people to whom it owes money can only get at the assets of that tire company.

Now, this sounds kind of arcane. But when you see it applied across Koch Industries, here's what it looks like. The company creates hundreds of nominally independent corporations, LLCs, S corps and other corporate structures that it can use to buy up other firms knowing that if one of those firms goes south and goes broke, and creditors try to come after the money Koch borrowed to buy it, Koch is shielded. Koch is protected.

GROSS: Is this all legal?

LEONARD: Absolutely. And when you write about this corporation, the word legal becomes so fascinating and so complex.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEONARD: It really does. Koch Industries, their core competence is mastering complex systems. I mean, this is a company born and bred running big machines at oil refineries, very complicated pipeline networks. They know how to master complex systems, and the law is no different. And what you see time and time again in the history of this corporation is that it's operating at a level that normal folks don't get to operate at. And what I mean to say is the question of was that legal or was that illegal becomes a question that at times has to be hashed out in court over 10 years.

And multiple people I interviewed at Koch Industries explained to me that, you know, this company is extremely good at playing up to the edge in these gray areas. The company is very conscious about not blatantly violating the law after it had a series of massive criminal cases during the 1990s. But at times, when you operate in these highly, highly complex environments, you can play right up to the edge of violating the law. And then the question becomes, did I break the law? Prove it. How good are your lawyers?

GROSS: And some of the, like, regulatory laws and financial laws are so complex, with loopholes in them that you can manipulate them if you're smart enough.

LEONARD: Well, I think a postcard example of this is when Koch Industries helped build these deregulated electricity markets in California back in the year 2000. And it's very clear from the historical record that when the deregulated markets for electricity got up and running in California, Koch Industries and other traders began immediately to manipulate those markets, but to prove that it happened took 10 years. There's a federal regulator over this stuff called the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. And I've looked through thousands of pages of FERC investigations and court hearings and this highly complex process just to prove that Koch traders unlawfully took at least hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits illegally.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Christopher Leonard. He's the author of the new book "Kochland: The Secret History Of Koch Industries And Corporate Power In America." And it gets not just into the industries. It gets into the political power of the Koch brothers as well. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And my guest is Christopher Leonard, author of the new book "Kochland: The Secret History Of Koch Industries And Corporate Power In America." It's also the story of how the Koch brothers have tried to remake the Republican Party to better suit the political and business needs of Koch Industries.

So one of the things that Koch Industries did was to branch out into the trading and derivatives market. So here we're talking about Wall Street kind of deals, complicated trading instruments. I - every time I learn about them, I kind of quickly forget what they are because they're (laughter) so complicated.


GROSS: So we're not going to get into the weeds on that but these are things like trading commodities and - give us some words to use to describe the basics.

LEONARD: Yeah. And I'm really glad we're talking about this because I found that trading - just that word writ large, trading - trading is at the core of this institution. Trading is the strategic heart of Koch Industries. And when you understand how this company engages in trading, you understand how they engage in business, and you very much understand how they engage in politics. It really draws back to the same thing.

So since the 1970s, Koch has been one of the world's largest traders of energy supplies. What that means is Koch would buy and sell literally whole supertankers full of crude oil or tanks full of crude oil, these physical supplies of energy. Well, the key to being a successful trader is essentially knowing more about the world than anybody else knows.

For example, if somebody out there is willing to sell a barrel of oil for $50, the Koch trader might know that that oil is actually worth $52. So when that's the case, the Koch trader piles into that trade, buys all the oil at $50 they can, sits on it, waits for the world to wake up to the fact that oil is actually worth $52, and then Koch sells it and can make hundreds of millions of dollars making trades like this.

So for this reason, the senior executives at Koch who built the trading division realized early on that the most important resource Koch deals with isn't crude oil or natural gas or coal; it's information. It's the information that they could glean from selling all of these products and the analysis they could apply to that, which allowed Koch to know more about what was going on in energy markets than anybody else knew.

Fast-forward to the year 2000 - Koch Industries bought an entire natural gas pipeline company just to get the information it possessed. The company was called Gateway Pipeline. It owned hundreds of miles of pipeline. Koch didn't care about the pipes. It didn't care about the gas. It wanted to simply learn because that pipeline network was connected to America's energy infrastructure at at least dozens of different points where gas was being sold every single day.

And with every sale, Koch would learn in real time what the demand was for gas and what people were willing to pay. And it would take that information, send it to supercomputers in Houston, Texas, where it ran a giant trading shop, and then augment it with these other very complex sources of information.

I mean, Koch would tap into obscure databases of the park service in California to figure out snowfall on the mountains there. Snowfall is a leading indicator of snowmelt, which is the leading indicator of reservoir levels, which is the leading indicator of hydroelectric supplies. So Koch puts that information into the mix. It draws in information about what kind of oil is being delivered to the United States. It helps it figure out what its competitors are doing.

GROSS: It hires meteorologists.


LEONARD: Koch literally went on a hiring spree and took the best stars from the Weather Channel and other channels like that to come in-house and predict the weather just a little bit better than everybody else. And these meteorologists told me how they would just laugh at the weather report because they knew it wasn't that close. This is worth a lot of money because when you have just a tiny bit of an edge knowing how cold it's going to be in Cleveland, you can anticipate energy supplies.

GROSS: So the Koch brothers use this not only to figure out pricing for actual things in the real world; they start trading in the markets, like in the stock market kind of markets, that basically bets on what prices will be. And since they have so much information, they make more and more (laughter) money just trading on these, like, speculative options, is that the right word - derivatives?

LEONARD: Well, that's exactly the right word - derivatives. And let's just keep it very simple and say they're insurance contracts on natural gas supplies. But the market for this is so enormous that a natural gas derivatives traders can make hundreds of millions of dollars in profits a year for the company just by selling these insurance contracts on natural gas prices. And again, Koch made more money betting on natural gas derivatives than it actually made owning the actual pipelines themselves.

GROSS: My guest is Christopher Leonard, author of the new book "Kochland: The Secret History Of Koch Industries And Corporate Power In America." After we take a short break, we'll talk about the Koch's influence on American politics. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Christopher Leonard, author of the new book "Kochland: The Secret History Of Koch Industries And Corporate Power In America." The Koch brothers, Charles and David, are famous for the wealth they've amassed through Koch Industries - together, they're worth more than $100 billion - and for creating a powerful political influence network.

Let's talk about the Koch brothers' political agenda. One of the major things they've opposed over the years is environmental regulations, regulating greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. What's their record as polluters, both in terms of emissions released into the air and toxins released into water and the land?

LEONARD: Well, they are one of the largest registered polluters in the United States, according to EPA documents. They're one of the largest emitters of various pollutions. I mean, this is a company that owns very, very large chemical plants, very, very large fossil fuel refineries. It's the kind of business that produces a lot of emissions and a lot of pollution of different kinds. The issue of carbon is at the heart of Koch's business and Koch's future.

And it's not just because of the carbon and greenhouse gas emissions that Koch itself puts out through its refineries or other operations. Koch has an enormous, almost incomprehensibly large investment sunk into the fossil fuels business. It owns two of the largest refineries in the United States. It trades all this crude oil around the world. It has built pipeline networks to handle this newly fracked crude oil.

So when you look at this equation of what would happen if we put a price on carbon emissions and greenhouse gas emissions, the real threat is that that might reduce demand for fossil fuels going out five, 10, 20 years. If that happens, the sunk value of this massive, industrial, globe-spanning infrastructure, the value of it, declines dramatically. And I interviewed a Koch Industries attorney who worked in the lobbying shop back in 2009 who told me, you know, Koch saw the efforts to put a price on carbon emissions as an existential threat to the company.

GROSS: So they did their best to block it. So this is the Waxman-Markey bill that you're talking about. And what year was that...

LEONARD: So this was...

GROSS: ...Introduced to Congress?

LEONARD: The Waxman-Markey bill was introduced in Congress in 2009. And this was at the absolute peak of the Obama revolution, if we would call it that. I mean, this was the rise of the blue wave in 2009, which is frankly kind of difficult to remember now. But Obama had just won the White House. Democrats controlled the House and the Senate. You know, the political people in D.C. were talking about a permanent Democratic majority. And one of the key priorities of the Obama administration and Congress was to pass a bill that would put a price on greenhouse gas emissions and carbon pollution.

GROSS: Which is what you were describing before. And as you say, this would have been a nightmare for Koch's fossil fuel businesses. So the Koch lobbyists target Republicans, who supported this cap and trade bill targeting greenhouse gas emissions. So what were some of the lobbying innovations, so to speak, that the Kochs came up with to - as incentives for Republicans to oppose the bill and as threats to Republicans who didn't?

LEONARD: Yes. And when Koch intervenes in this arena, it does it in the same way it trades commodities. It does it over time with patience, making 100 bets, if you will, hoping that it wins seven out of 10 times. So this is a patient strategy. And Koch's political influence apparatus, I think, is truly unrivaled in corporate America. It's this multifaceted, 360-degree machine. First of all, it starts - you've got one of the largest registered corporate lobbying shops in the United States based a block from the White House which Koch operates.

But coupled with that, and I think just as important, is this group called Americans for Prosperity, which is not quite a volunteer organization. It's a boots-on-the-ground organization of paid employees and volunteers. It's an organization that can deliver angry voters from West Virginia, Ohio, Missouri, you name it. Koch - Americans for Prosperity will load them onto buses, bring them to D.C., give them a box lunch, give them printed placards of protest and deliver them to the exact legislative offices that Koch's lobbying shop is telling them to pressure.

GROSS: This group has been called an astroturf group because it may look like a grassroots group, but it's really a group that's being - it's like fake grassroots. It's being manipulated by larger powers, in this case the Koch brothers.

LEONARD: Yeah. And I want to be a little careful here. You know, the book talks about the rise of the Tea Party, critically important moment in American history. The Tea Party was a legitimate populist movement of people who were super upset in 2009. What Koch brought to bear was that kind of backroom organization that would take decades for any movement to actually build.

And so, yeah, I've been at Americans for Prosperity events where Koch organizes charter buses from around the country. People arrive for a rally at an extremely nice event space near Union Station in Washington, D.C. They're given a box lunch. They're shown around by Americans for Prosperity employees, who are kind of like Disney tour guides wearing the American (ph) for Prosperity windbreaker. And then they're delivered to important offices of Congress.

So Koch has truly facilitated popular political movements in order to achieve its own lobbying goals. There's no question about that. And when you look at the history of the Tea Party, for example, Koch didn't create the Tea Party, but it expertly rode that wave. And it helped inject its own concerns into the Tea Party movement. And you saw Tea Party activists who were very upset about Wall Street bailouts and Obama start to get very, very upset about the cap and trade bill or the effort to put a price on carbon.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Christopher Leonard. He's the author of the new book "Kochland: The Secret History Of Koch Industries And Corporate Power In America." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Christopher Leonard, author of the new book "Kochland: The Secret History Of Koch Industries And Corporate Power In America." The book is also about Koch political power in America.

So another thing that the Kochs did to kind of create this populist or pseudo-populist movement against cap and trade was to teach volunteers how to call talk radio stations and get on the air and even, like, mention the websites that listeners should go to to learn more. Can you talk a little bit about the echo chamber that Koch created to amplify and spread its political messages?

LEONARD: Absolutely. And you know, Steve Lonegan, who headed Americans for Prosperity in New Jersey, just gleefully described this stuff to me. I think he's - he believes in what he's doing. He's really proud of what he's doing. He would train folks how to get onto the talk radio station and what to say. And then he would teach folks, you know, you have got to harass these lawmakers around the clock. When that lawmaker gets in the office Monday, they need to have a hundred faxes from you, you know? So they would teach these techniques to their employees and to their volunteers.

But the technique you just described of the echo chamber is somewhat even larger than that. You know, Washington, D.C., is - it's a kind of a cliche, but it's a surprisingly small town. It's kind of like this fishbowl of people sharing ideas with one another. And Koch, perhaps better than anybody else, has become an expert at seeding that ground with its own ideas without leaving fingerprints.

And here's how it'll do it, you know? The cap and trade fight is very heated. There's a large movement in the United States to curb greenhouse gas emissions. So what Koch Industries does is it privately arranges a study to be done by this group called the American Council for Capital Formation, or ACCF. And Koch asked them to produce a report on global warming, and it paid for it surreptitiously, I would say, using a foundation controlled by the Koch family called the Claude Lambe Foundation, which funnels the money to the think tank to produce the report.

Well, the report is produced, and it's extraordinarily negative on economic effects - like, way out on one end of the spectrum of what a cap and trade bill will do. I mean, they're basically saying we're going to live in this "Mad Max" hellscape (ph) of a world if you pass a cap and trade bill. But that's not the end of it. Once that report is out, Koch uses the other think tanks that it has founded and that it operates, like the Institute for Energy Research, to amplify this message. And then it uses a political think tank group it started called the American Energy Alliance, which takes the study's findings, packages it into these political ads that use the main talking point from the study and then uses those ads against very targeted legislators.

GROSS: In addition to the things you've already described that Koch Industries did to kill cap and trade, what incentives or threats did it offer directly to politicians? - because it wanted legislators to vote against cap and trade, against regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

LEONARD: From the earliest days, Charles Koch has made it clear that the focus of his attention is going to be the Republican Party. As he said at a gathering in 2005, you know, the Democrats are a lost cause. They're going to do what Democrats do. We need to reshape Republicans and what Republicans believe in. So for decades, the Koch network has been trying to move the Republican Party toward this libertarian, very dramatically anti-government point of view.

So you know, when the cap and trade bill came out in 2009, it was actually - it enjoyed bipartisan support. John McCain was campaigning on the issue of global warming. And I interviewed one Republican legislator named Bob Inglis, who was as conservative as a lawmaker could be. He was from one of the reddest districts in America in South Carolina - very much a small government, limited budget, Christian kind of lawmaker.

Well, when he got to Congress, Bob Inglis sat on the science committee, and he started to see some of the actual underlying evidence that global warming was - I hate to use the term real. It's undeniable that we are putting gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere and it makes the Earth warmer. Bob Inglis saw that and felt that it was a massive public policy priority, so he supported efforts to put a price on carbon.

Now, he was close with Koch Industries. Koch Industries had donated to his campaign. Koch Industries had given him tours of a Koch facility in his home district. But the moment he started talking about putting a price on carbon, Koch turned against him. And I don't mean they just stopped giving them money. They donated to a competitor named Trey Gowdy. They helped raise up a competitor. They helped facilitate massive Tea Party demonstrations at Bob Inglis' town hall events. You know, Americans for Prosperity would tell people time and place to go to protest Bob Inglis. They made him a villain in his home district, and he was voted out of office because he broke the orthodoxy on climate change.

And you saw this across the House and the Senate that Koch would invest resources in - you'd have to say - effectively punishing any Republican who dared cross that threshold.

GROSS: So when cap and trade was defeated, did the Koch brothers see that as a great victory for them?

LEONARD: Well, without question. And I mean, I want to point out that within months of the defeat of cap and trade, Koch Industries started making a series of very large investments in crude oil pipelines in south Texas, where the fracking revolution was opening up all these new sources of crude oil. The investment went pouring into that. Koch created a crude oil superhighway in south Texas that went directly to its refinery in Corpus Christi. It took enormous heat off the fossil fuels business, and it was seen as a tremendous victory. And I think it's important to remember in retrospect just how powerful Obama appeared at the time and how powerful the so-called Democratic blue wave appeared. All those dreams of a Democratic permanent majority came crashing to an end in 2010, and Koch played a huge role in that and benefited from it dramatically. You know, Koch is one of the largest corporations in the United States. And as an entrenched, incumbent economic player, it benefits from the status quo. So Koch benefits over the decades in - or, rather, over the years - when you see political stalemate, political dysfunction, political conflict. In an environment like that, the entities that win time and time again are the entrenched incumbents who benefit from the status quo, and Koch is a perfect example of that.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Christopher Leonard. He's the author of the new book "Kochland: The Secret History Of Koch Industries And Corporate Power In America." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Christopher Leonard, author of the new book "Kochland: The Secret History Of Koch Industries And Corporate Power In America." The book is also about Koch political power in America.

You explained that the Kochs did not support Donald Trump in the primaries, and you say everything Trump stood for was a threat to the Kochs. What were the things he stood for that was a threat? Why were they a threat? What did he stand for?

LEONARD: He stood for an entirely different vision of the Republican Party. Charles Koch believes he has found the blueprint for how to organize society, and the blueprint is non-negotiable. Government must play as small of a role as possible. You have to have a voluntary market exchange system. And that's it - no public highways, no Social Security, no Medicare. That's the Charles Koch vision, and he's been patiently trying to make that the vision of the Republican Party for decades.

Donald Trump has an entirely different view of what the White House is for. And, you know, it's a cliche to say that Trump just came in out of nowhere and upended the game table of politics in 2016, but it's very true. And when you're inside the Koch network, a lot of Donald Trump's rhetoric is dangerous. He is ideologically impure from the point of view of the Koch network.

And I can say that in the sort of subterranean world of Congress, where there's lobbyists and congressional staffers writing laws, there is a fight right now to grab control of the steering wheel of the Republican Party. And if Donald Trump wins re-election, I think it's viewed by the lobbyists that work with Koch that it will reshape the Republican Party for a generation.

GROSS: And how does that go against the Koch vision?

LEONARD: You know, Charles Koch believes that any government program, no matter how well-intentioned, it only causes more harm than good. And, you know, the tariffs and the so-called trade war that's going on right now is a perfect example of this. Donald Trump has shown he's willing to intervene dramatically in the marketplace to achieve his policy goals. That is anathema to the Koch network, and I have to say it's anathema not just ideologically but economically.

GROSS: You say that the Koch agenda now with Trump in the White House is block and tackle - block legislation that Trump wants that the Koch brothers don't want and then help Trump tackle projects that or legislation that the Kochs support. How's that been working?

LEONARD: Well, I have to say this strategy's been working extremely well for Koch's interests. If Charles Koch had a Christmas list of 99 items, he's gotten 98 since Trump got into the White House. The Koch strategy, as always, is patient, flexible and focused on the actual subterranean machinery of government. So you've seen Charles Koch write op-eds that he is upset about tariffs. And there is this political danger that the Koch network could lose the Republican base forever if Trump is re-elected. But when you look at the daily tally of policy preferences, the Koch network has done extremely well.

The tax reform plan that Trump pushed was transformed. The border-adjustment tax was jettisoned before it was really even publicly debated. The tax plan turned into a massive tax cut for corporations and the wealthiest Americans. The statistics show that that's the case. The middle-class tax breaks are going to expire in 2022 up to 2027, so the tax preferences were realized.

And then what you see maybe most importantly is the sustained attack on the so-called administrative state that's going on every single day but doesn't capture headlines. And that is truly music to Koch's ears, both for its business preferences and for its ideological preference, that you don't have large government entities intervening in the marketplace.

GROSS: Right. It's getting rid of a lot of regulations and dismantling part of the agencies that oversee the regulations.

LEONARD: I mean, gosh, talking about deregulation almost sounds like the Reagan era, and that's - what's happening right now surpasses that so dramatically. It's - you know, for example, the EPA has been a - I have to call it a nemesis of Koch Industries for decades. And it's not just that the Trump appointees who run these agencies are trying to repeal the rules, which they are. They are also simply throwing sand in the gears. They are letting the workforce dissipate.

The Trump administration just announced that they're moving a major division of USDA science research that did a lot of climate change research, they're moving it from D.C. to Kansas City. I'm from Kansas City. I want to see business in Kansas City, but the real intention of this is to dismantle the department. According to people I've interviewed who work for the science department, you know, a tiny fraction of the personnel are actually going to make the move from D.C. to Kansas City.

So you just see this like broad-spectrum effort to hobble, dismantle and cripple the administrative state so it cannot enforce the rules.

GROSS: Christopher Leonard, thank you so much for your reporting and for talking with us.

LEONARD: Thank you.

GROSS: Christopher Leonard is the author of the new book "Kochland: The Secret History Of Koch Industries And Corporate Power In America."

FRESH AIR is produced in Philadelphia. A beloved newspaper editor from our city, Gar Joseph, has died of brain cancer at the age of 71. He was a reporter, then editor at the Philadelphia Daily News. FRESH AIR's Dave Davies was a reporter and columnist at the Daily News for 20 years and worked with Joseph.

Dave, reporters don't always like their editors. What made Gar Joseph special?

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: He was sure-footed, very direct - no time for BS or sugarcoating criticism - had a wicked sense of humor. He pretty much ended up running the newsroom. But he was really a reporter at heart and a really talented writer. He created and wrote a really original political column called Clout, which still exists at the paper today - obviously, written by others.

And I remember in the '90s, he and his wife Marty Woodall, an enormously accomplished journalist herself, would take their two boys out for dinner on weekends. And then he would write these family restaurant reviews that were just hilarious.

But he became an editor because he was needed. And you know, Terry, we've all heard about the decline of newspapers and the loss of reporting talent. But the editing ranks have been depleted, too. And I have to say - managing reporters is not easy. They all treasure their autonomy, and the editor has to deal with all of them and make dozens of decisions every day that are going to get disputed and second-guessed. You tend to grow a pretty thick skin in that kind of job.

I sat directly across from Gar for many years, and I would watch. And staff cutbacks would eliminate editing positions, and then he would just absorb another job on top of what he was already doing. Now, he did well with it. He would continue to improve people's stories and nourish the young reporting talent. But I could see what a toll it took on him.

GROSS: How did he deal with morale at the paper? - because as you mentioned, the paper had a lot of financial cutbacks. It filed for bankruptcy in 2009.

DAVIES: Gar was one of the most pragmatic people I ever met. He wouldn't worry about what he couldn't control. And when the paper filed for bankruptcy, he said, folks, we got to keep doing our jobs, and our best hope is to put great content out there. And he got right back to work.

GROSS: And in 2010, the paper actually won a Pulitzer.

DAVIES: Yeah. That was really special for him. He edited the series about a police narcotics squad written by two incredibly talented reporters Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker. It was enormously satisfying to him, both the work and the honor of a Pulitzer for investigative reporting.

You know, Barbara Laker said, after editing one of her stories, that Gar told her it was like polishing a Lexus. He was a writer to the very end. And you know, the reason we know about that - I mean, he gave her that comment probably six years ago - is that it meant so much to her that it's included in his obituary.

GROSS: Well, thanks for that remembrance, Dave. And we send our sympathies to Gar Joseph's family.

DAVIES: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Janet Mock, a writer, director and producer of the TV series "Pose" about the underground gay and trans ball culture of the late '80s and early '90s, when the AIDS epidemic was decimating the community. With "Pose," Mock made history as the first trans woman of color to write and direct an episode of TV. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.


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