- Robert and Rebekah Mercer ranked among President Donald Trump’s most influential backers in 2016. But they’ve all but abandoned the embattled president and aren’t likely to help him in the home stretch for 2020, five people who know the media-averse Mercers tell Insider.
- “They’re 100, 100, 100% out,” an associate of Rebekah Mercer said.
- A billionaire, Robert Mercer has the financial resources to spend tens of millions of dollars to help Trump — if he wanted to. That kind of money could play a major role in swing states such as Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, which are critical to Trump winning reelection.
- The Mercers helped persuade Trump to appoint allies — including Steve Bannon and John Bolton — into top campaign or White House roles. But Trump has soured on several of the former aides.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Four years ago this summer, with Donald Trump’s presidential effort floundering, the impossibly wealthy, poker-loving Mercer family played their winning hand to make America great again.
Led by billionaire hedge-fund manager Robert Mercer, they poured eight figures into a pro-Trump super PAC.
They plugged Cambridge Analytica, the trendy data company they bankrolled, into Trumpworld.
And in a staffing shake-up that helped propel Trump to the White House, they facilitated the Republican businessman’s hiring of three Mercer acolytes: Citizens United President David Bossie as deputy campaign manager, pollster Kellyanne Conway as campaign manager, and Breitbart executive chairman Steve Bannon as his campaign CEO.
Flash forward to 2020.
Trump’s reelection campaign is imperiled. Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, like Hillary Clinton four year ago, enjoys significant leads in polls. But this time, the Mercers’ political machine, led by patriarch Robert and daughter Rebekah, is effectively idled. And it’s unlikely the family will ignite it between now and Election Day, five people who know the media-averse Mercers told Insider.
“The Mercers’ involvement would be invaluable,” said businessman Doug Deason, a top Trump fundraiser in Texas, a normally rock-solid Republican state that Biden has a chance of winning. “It would certainly help. You never have enough resources in a campaign.”
Texas businessman Toby Neugebauer, a Republican megadonor in his own right, told Insider that he texted with Rebekah Mercer a couple of weeks ago but the conversation wasn’t about Trump.
“He didn’t come up,” said Neugebauer, who himself is curtailing political contributions this election cycle to focus on philanthropic giving. The Matthew 6:20 Foundation, which he leads with his wife, has contributed millions of dollars to Christian ministries and other charities in the past decade.
A Republican Party official close to the Trump campaign, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record, said the Trump campaign was no longer expecting to receive Mercer family support, financial or otherwise.
“The Mercer cavalry,” the official predicted, “isn’t coming over the hill.”
Said another associate of Rebekah Mercer: “They’re 100, 100, 100% out.”
Big money then, but not now
For the wide-open 2016 election cycle, Robert Mercer and his wife, Diana Mercer, contributed more than $25.6 million across several conservative political committees. It included $15.5 million to Make America Number 1, which supported Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential bid before switching allegiance to Trump.
This total ranks the Mercers No. 8 among federal-level political megadonors for the 2016 election cycle, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
In direct contributions to political committees, it puts them ahead of other GOP businessmen kingmakers such as Charles Koch and Richard Uihlein on the right and George Soros and Michael Bloomberg on the left.
But in 2019 and 2020, the Mercers have fallen off the megadonor list.
Their lone contribution toward Trump’s reelection came on February 14, when Robert Mercer sent a $355,200 valentine to Trump Victory — a joint fundraising entity that splits money among the Trump presidential campaign, the Republican National Committee, and 22 state Republican committees. Of that, Trump’s committee got only $5,600, the legal maximum for a primary and general election combined.
Rebekah Mercer, who has herself spread hundreds of thousands of dollars among dozens of Republican committees over the years, hasn’t given a cent to Trump’s reelection cause.
Kelly Sadler, a spokeswoman for America First Action — the leading pro-Trump super PAC backing Trump’s reelection — declined to comment on the Mercers or why they have yet to contribute money to America First Action. “We don’t talk about our donors,” she said.
Sadler did say her super PAC, which enjoys multimillion-dollar support from investor Timothy Mellon and real-estate developer Geoffrey Palmer, among others, just announced a $23 million advertising buy targeting the swing states of Arizona, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. America First Action has also reserved more than $26 million in ads in Florida and North Carolina set to run after Labor Day and through Election Day, she said.
A representative for Priorities USA Action, a leading pro-Biden super PAC, said the organization wasn’t underestimating Trump’s reelection forces, Mercers or no Mercers.
“I don’t think we’re in a position to speak to the Mercers’ mindset,” said Josh Schwerin, the super PAC official who also served as a lead spokesman for the Clinton 2016 campaign. “But I can say that while we outspent America First over the last year, we fully expect the Trump operation to be financially competitive throughout the rest of the election.”
Overall, the Trump campaign enjoys a healthy balance sheet heading into the final three months of the 2020 cycle, attributable partly to the president’s formally running for reelection since the same day of his inauguration.
Trump’s own campaign committee reported $113 million cash on hand as of June 30, while pro-Trump super PACs and the like had more than $21 million, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
But Trump’s campaign has been roiled by internal concerns about spending irregularities, and as he did this time four years ago, Trump has rejiggered his top staff, demoting campaign manager Brad Parscale in favor of Bill Stepien.
Biden’s election forces have recently been outraising Trump. Earlier this week, the presumptive Democratic nominee’s campaign reported to the Federal Election Commission that it had about $109 million cash on hand entering July. Pro-Biden super PACs and other groups had about $39 million in reserve, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The clock ticks
If the Mercers have any intention of making a big financial splash, they’d better do so quickly, said Sean Spicer, Trump’s former White House press secretary and communications director.
“You can only do so many things with [big money] in the final few days, final few weeks,” Spicer said. “The earlier the money comes in, the better.”
But he added that “money is money,” and if the Mercers decide not to fill any pro-Trump super PACs flush with cash, another wealthy donor — such as casino mogul Sheldon Adelson — could help fill the void.
Even a $20 million infusion could make a profound difference in a swing state where a small number of votes may go a long way in determining who lives in the White House next year.
The symbolism of the Mercers ghosting Trump, beyond just bankrolling his presidential ambitions, is also stark.
Some Democrats shared their glee over a family of top Trump backers apparently self-quarantining from the president.
“It’s bizarre and mind-boggling, but it’s pretty telling about the larger picture if Trump can’t even keep Mercer,” said Adam Parkhomenko, who in 2013 cofounded the Ready for Hillary super PAC and later worked for Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and as the Democratic National Committee’s national field director.
The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment. Messages left for the Mercers through their nonprofit family foundation were not returned.
Souring on Trump
The Mercers’ silence over their role in the 2020 race isn’t all that surprising. If Trump is the world’s most bombastic billionaire, Robert Mercer may be its most reclusive.
“I’m happy going through my life without saying anything to anybody,” the hedge funder told The Wall Street Journal in 2010 in a rare interview.
In January 2018, Rebekah Mercer, whose day jobs have included co-owning a cookie bakery and homeschooling her children, released an equally rare statement about her family’s politics.
“I support President Trump and the platform upon which he was elected,” Mercer wrote at the time.
Save for a Rebekah Mercer op-ed in The Wall Street Journal about the same time, they’ve said nothing of substance since Trump became president.
To people who know them, as well as close outside observers, their reticence and inaction suggest something’s changed.
After 2016, the Mercers basked for a bit in Trump’s colossal upset of Clinton.
Trump, who once routinely denied that wealthy donors influenced him, tapped Rebekah Mercer to serve on the executive committee of his presidential transition. Robert Mercer contributed $1 million to Trump’s inauguration.
Trump even attended a December 2016 “heroes and villains”-themed costume party hosted by the Mercers on New York’s Long Island. Conway, who’d soon become one of Trump’s most recognizable White House advisers, dressed as Super Girl.
—Kellyanne Conway (@KellyannePolls) December 4, 2016
The Mercers’ first big political collaboration with Conway occurred earlier in the 2016 election cycle, when they gave millions of dollars to a pro-Cruz super PAC run by Conway. In a September 2016 interview, Neugebauer credited Rebekah Mercer with personally “talking some sense into Donald Trump” and convincing him to hire Conway, a longtime GOP operative who also had close ties to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Vice President Mike Pence. Conway this week declined an interview request.
Other Mercer friends would head to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Most notable was Bannon, the former Trump White House chief strategist who wielded outsized influence during the early months of the new GOP administration. “The Mercers laid the groundwork for the Trump revolution,” Bannon told The New Yorker in early 2017.
Another Mercer ally who landed in the president’s orbit was John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN during the George W. Bush administration who signed on as Trump’s national-security adviser in April 2018. Robert Mercer had given the John Bolton Super PAC $5 million between 2014 and 2017.
The Bolton super PAC, for its part, had spent more than $1 million on what a former staffer there once described as “comically bad” voter-profiling data from Cambridge Analytica. The Trump campaign hired the data company, which was funded in large part by the Mercers, during the final months of the 2016 White House race.
But the Mercer-Bannon-Bolton-Trump alliance soon began unraveling.
Trump fired Bannon in August 2017. Five months later, after word leaked that Bannon trashed Trump in the then unpublished Michael Wolff book “Fire and Fury,” Trump tarred Bannon as a self-aggrandizing blowhard who had “lost his mind.”
The quarrel led the Mercers — who’d invested heavily in the Bannon-led Breitbart — to also sever ties with Bannon.
Bolton likewise flamed out, with Trump unceremoniously dismissing him last year.
Even Citizens United’s Bossie, the Trump deputy campaign manager who had a longer relationship with Trump than either Conway or Bannon, last year served a sentence in Trumpworld purgatory after Trump accused him of operating a “dishonest” super PAC that traded on the president’s name and image. (Bossie, like former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and many others, has recently found himself back in Trump’s favor.)
Compounding matters is Trump’s anti-immigrant and pro-isolationist rhetoric, along with his social views that critics charge offer comfort to white nationalists. Trump’s stances on such matters are out of sync with Rebekah Mercer’s most recent publicly stated sentiments, although they jibe with the aims of some groups the Mercers have financially backed.
“I believe in a kind and generous United States, where the hungry are fed, the sick are cared for, and the homeless are sheltered,” Rebekah Mercer wrote in her 2018 Wall Street Journal op-ed.
“All American citizens deserve equality and fairness before the law. All people should be treated with dignity and compassion. I support a United States that welcomes immigrants and refugees to apply for entry and ultimately citizenship. I reject as venomous and ignorant any discrimination based on race, gender, creed, ethnicity or sexual orientation.”
Robert Mercer’s support of Trump and Bannon contributed to his quitting in early 2018 as cochief executive and board member of Renaissance Technologies, the hedge fund where he’d worked for 25 years. The drama coincided with the Mercers curtailing their political giving during the 2018 midterms, with associates at the time telling CNBC that the Mercers had tired of the attention that came with their Trump association.
“I always got the sense from Rebekah that she’s attuned to, and has her finger on the pulse of, political realities,” Mark Groombridge, a longtime Bolton aide who worked for the John Bolton Super PAC until 2015, told Insider. “The Mercers seem to have realized that Trumpism isn’t the path they want to pursue in the future, that it’s a bad investment now.”
The Mercers also continue to endure what’s now a four-year-old legal hangover stemming from their 2016 activity.
Most notable is the saga of the now defunct data firm Cambridge Analytica, which special counsel Robert Mueller investigated as part of his inquiry into Russian meddling in the last White House campaign. Rebekah Mercer and her sister, Jennifer, liquidated the company in 2018, although authorities in the US and UK have continued looking into its operations.
Spicer this week recalled Bannon sitting in a conference room in the summer of 2016, reviewing Cambridge Analytica data and remarking, “Why is this up there?”
The Cambridge Analytica data that the Trump campaign paid for was “so stupidly wrong” and a “complete joke,” Spicer added. (Bannon did not return requests for comment on this story.)
The pro-Trump Make America Number 1 super PAC, which Robert Mercer funded and Rebekah Mercer herself operated, also continues to face an illegal-coordination complaint — initially before the FEC and now in federal court — filed against it by the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. The super PAC had spent more than $4.3 million against Clinton in 2016.
Since 2017, the super PAC has spent about $283,000 on legal fees, federal records show, an unusually large amount for a political committee. All went to the firm Greenberg Traurig, at which Trump’s personal lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Marc Mukasey worked until mid-2018 and January 2019, respectively.
‘Dark money’ in motion?
There is the possibility, wholly unsubstantiated, that the Mercers are anonymously bankrolling “dark money” nonprofits that in turn support Trump.
If so, effectively nobody would know. That’s the nature of dark money in politics. Such dark-money operations aren’t legally required to reveal their donors but may still use a portion of their money to directly advocate for or against political candidates. They’re the ideal vehicle for people or corporations who want to influence politics without drawing attention.
But sources familiar with the Mercers’ political spending said they have no evidence that the Mercers are doing so.
One nonprofit the Mercers have long patronized — the Government Accountability Institute, led by “Clinton Cash” and “Profiles in Corruption” author Peter Schweizer — did file a 91-page request in August 2019 asking the FEC for formal “affirmation” that its books, articles, website, and published investigation qualify for a press exemption. Entities with a press exemption are not required, as political committees are, to report their contributions and spending to the FEC.
For months, the FEC didn’t have enough commissioners to make a ruling. But on May 6, with the FEC poised to regain a quorum, the Government Accountability Institute withdrew its request without explanation. The Government Accountability Institute did not respond to requests for comment.
Separately, the Mercers have long funded, and continue to fund, a number of nonprofits that champion conservative or libertarian causes but don’t directly participate in electoral politics.
Beneficiaries include the Federalist Society ($2.3 million in 2015), which helped shape the selection of Trump’s nominees to federal courts.
In 2018, the Mercers approved a $8.15 million contribution to be given at an unspecified time to Donors Trust, a donor-advised fund that allows conservative donors who prize anonymity to fund a variety of right-leaning organizations, according to the Mercer Family Foundation’s most recent tax return
That year, they also contributed to several nonprofits focused on other priorities, such as science, education, and the arts. Among them: The Ohio State University Foundation ($1 million), the pro-marijuana Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies ($250,000), and the American Museum of Natural History ($145,000).
Groombridge, the former Bolton aide, predicted the Mercers would continue making these kinds of donations and take their time reentering politics.
“Say what you want about them, but they’re very smart and know how to play a long game,” he said.
When political committees — including those that support Trump — this week released financial accounting reports for June, they would’ve been required to disclose any contribution from the Mercers.
The Mercers were not listed.