congress night1

Exposed – Reclusive mega-donor fueling Donald Trump’s White House run

 

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump pauses while speaking at a campaign rally Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016, in Prescott Valley, Ariz.

 

In March, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was vehement: Super PACs are a “disaster” and “very corrupt.”

With his opponent, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, gazing expressionlessly at him from the next podium during a Republican primary debate, Trump added, “Ted has super PACs, and you have to look at the people that are giving to those super PACs, number one. It’s very important to do that.”

“There is total control of the candidates,” Trump continued. “I know it better than anybody that probably ever lived.”

 

In March, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was vehement: Super PACs are a “disaster” and “very corrupt.”

With his opponent, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, gazing expressionlessly at him from the next podium during a Republican primary debate, Trump added, “Ted has super PACs, and you have to look at the people that are giving to those super PACs, number one. It’s very important to do that.”

“There is total control of the candidates,” Trump continued. “I know it better than anybody that probably ever lived.”

If he’s right, New York investor Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, the very same mega-donors who propped up Cruz’s bid, are due for some scrutiny.

In June, the Mercers threw their support — and super PAC— behind Trump’s bid, at a time few other mega-donors were doing so. And in August, reportedly acting on Rebekah Mercer’s suggestion, Trump hired and promoted a cadre of operatives closely connected to the Mercers, including two who had run the Mercers’ super PAC, to his campaign leadership team.

Mercer, reclusive by nature, isn’t inclined to speak publicly about his giving, making it a challenge to determine much about either his reasons for promoting a Trump administration or what he stands to gain. Robert and Rebekah Mercer both declined to be interviewed for this story.

But a Center for Public Integrity review of Mercer’s political and philanthropic spending found clues.

Mercer’s largesse has largely gone to anti-establishment groups and insurgent candidates working to pull the Republican Party further to the right, rather than the business-backed organizations closely associated with the Republican establishment, adding to his reputation as an ideologically motivated giver.

He has heavily funded ultra-conservative media outlets, like Breitbart Newsand Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center.

His foundation gives to groups that question human involvement in climate change, such as the Heartland Institute think tank and others. He’s also backed the Citizens United Foundation and the Government Accountability Institute, organizations that have ardently pursued an anti-Hillary Clinton agenda.

There are signs, however, that Mercer is also motivated by issues that affect him personally. At least twice, he has unleashed gushers of outside spending to derail the re-election of a lawmaker — one who backed a tax on hedge fund transactions, another who investigated his company’s tax strategies.

Robert Mercer, 70, co-chief executive officer of hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, has emerged as the single most influential donor to Trump, the brash businessman whose political rise was propelled by his personal fortune.

Mercer grew up in New Mexico, participated in the band and the chess club in high school, and attended the University of New Mexico. He has said he didn’t use a computer until he attended a youth science camp after high school, though he was fascinated by them. He got a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Illinois and joined a team at IBM that used statistical techniques to enable computers to understand speech and translate languages, work widely hailed as groundbreaking.

In 1993, Renaissance recruited Mercer and his longtime colleague, Peter Brown, and the two took the leap into investing. In 2010, theybecame co-CEOs of Renaissance. The two are a study in contrasts. Brown is known as a voluble Democrat, and Mercer as his calmer, conservative foil; the book More Money Than God: Hedge Funds and the Making of the New Elitereported his boss at IBM jokingly referred to him as an “automaton.”

“I’m happy going through my life without saying anything to anybody,” Mercer told The Wall Street Journal in 2010, in a rare interview given when he and Brown took over as co-CEOs of Renaissance Technologies.

Since then, he has become one of the highest-paid hedge fund managers in the business.

But Mercer’s greatest influence on Trump may not be via his cash but, rather, through key operatives who have leaped from the Mercers’ organization to lead Trump’s: campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, campaign CEO Steve Bannon and deputy campaign manager David Bossie.

“What [Rebekah] and her dad did was go sit down with the Donald and talk to him about his team. His team was failing him. They weren’t controlling the message and all that,” said Toby Neugebauer, a donor who worked in conjunction with the Mercers when they were supporting Cruz.

Neugebauer, speaking on a panel of large political donors at the Texas Tribune Festival in September, said Conway has “really gotten the message there, she’s gotten him under control. He’s not as bombastic, obviously. So I give her — Rebekah Mercer — a lot a lot of credit for talking some sense into Donald Trump to bring [Conway] on board and get her there, and we’ll see if it pays off in the end.”

Conway is a Republican pollster who oversaw day-to-day operations of the Mercers’ super PAC through early June, while it backed Cruz and had a different name, Keep the Promise I. In late June, after Cruz’s withdrawal, the Mercers repurposed the group as an anti-Clinton PAC, changing the name to Make America Number 1. Conway departed to join the Trump campaign, a move announced on July 1.

Conway’s association with Mercer and Trump has been profitable.

The Mercer super PAC, Make America Number 1, reported paying Conway’s firm, the Polling Company, more than $950,000 during this election cycle, including roughly $247,000 in August, after she had left to work directly for the Trump campaign.

Trump’s campaign, for its part, reported paying the Polling Company roughly $128,500 in August.

Campaigns and the super PACs supporting them are legally prohibited from “coordinating,” though the laws are complicated. They are permitted to have common vendors if appropriate steps are taken to avoid illegal sharing of information.

Public filings do not make it clear when the work was performed.

Conway said in an e-mailed response to questions from the Center for Public Integrity that she has “never worked for Make America I PAC,” and “been inside the campaign firewall from the beginning.”

She did not respond to follow-up questions.

In comments to Politico on the same subject, she said the company has separate staffs working on the two accounts and there is a “firewall” between them. She initially told Politico that her firm “performed survey research and messaging work for this PAC in late June and early July” but subsequently said the payment pertained to “surveys in late June.”

In addition, she said “no further work is planned” for the super PAC.

Bossie took over briefly until he, too, joined the Trump campaign at the beginning of September. Bossie was head of Citizens United, the organization that made the anti-Clinton documentary that led to the landmark 2010 Supreme Court campaign finance ruling Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

Bossie is taking a leave from Citizens United while working with the campaign. The Citizens United Foundation received about $3.6 million in grants from the Mercer Family Foundation between 2012 and 2014, tax filings show.

Bannon’s relationship with the Mercers has long been chalked up to Robert Mercer’s reported investment inBreitbart News, the conservative news site Bannon headed before taking a leave of absence to join the Trump campaign. The Mercers declined to comment on the reports of the Breitbart investment but Breitbart has disclosed a debt to a limited liability company with the same address as Renaissance Technologies, Gravitas Maximus LLC, according to corporate filings.

Breitbart News, however, is not the only joint endeavor involving the Mercers and Bannon. Rebekah Mercer and Bannon have also worked together on the boards of two nonprofits, the Government Accountability Institute, a conservative investigative research group, and Reclaim New York, a watchdog and advocacy group, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of taxfilings on the Citizen Audit website.

Bannon and Bossie have long collaborated on projects. Bannon has directed some film projects for Citizens United, and the Citizens United Foundationpaid Bannon’s company $150,000 for “film consulting” in 2013, according to its tax return.

Web of connections

Bossie has taken credit for introducing Bannon to Trump in 2011, when Trump was considering running for president during the 2012 election cycle and sought advice.

And in a previously unreported transaction, Bannon Strategic Advisors received $300,000 from Bossie’s Citizens United Foundation in 2012, a fundraising fee apparently in exchange for bringing in a $2 million grant from the Mercers’ foundation.

Mercer has provided more than advisers and cash. He’s reportedly a significant investor in Cambridge Analytica, an offshoot of British company SCL that recently opened offices in New York, which claims to help clients target voters or donors by using a personality model to determine the type of appeal that will be most effective.

The company has been a vendor for the Mercer super PAC, currently known as Make America Number 1, and now, the Trump campaign, which paid it a total of $350,000 this summer.

Direct investments

Mercer has made more direct investments in politics.

Together with his wife, Diana, Robert Mercer directly contributed roughly $23 million to federal candidates and political committees during the 2016 election cycle through the end of August. That made the couple the top individual donors on the Republican side, according to federal campaign contribution data tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Of that, Robert Mercer gave $15.5 million to Make America Number 1 and $2.5 million to the John Bolton super PAC. Robert and Diana Mercer together gave about $1.3 million to the Republican National Committee.

There’s potential for millions more: Robert Mercer earned $150 million last year, according to Forbes.

Rebekah Mercer has given roughly $510,000 this election cycle, including nearly $450,000 to the joint fundraising committee established by Trump and the RNC, a Center for Public Integrity review of campaign finance filings found.

Most of those who have received funding from the Mercers did not respond to repeated requests for comment or declined to speak on the record.

But the Mercers have clearly built one of the most significant independent political infrastructures of the moment.

Early in the 2016 election cycle, the Mercer operation emerged as a key backer of Cruz’s presidential bid, and the operatives running it hit Trump hard. The Mercer-backed super PAC even gave $200,000 to an anti-Trump group, Our Principles PAC, in March.

When Cruz withdrew, the Mercer family nonetheless threw their backing to Trump — a striking show of support for the then-almost certain nominee at a time when many major GOP donors hung back.

The Mercers issued a rare public statement to The New York Timesreprimanding Cruz when he declined to endorse Trump at the Republican convention in July, and now are being publicly credited with convincing the Texas senator to make the public endorsement he issued in late September.

In another statement, this one given to The Washington Post applauding Cruz’s endorsement, the Mercers made their feelings about the election — and the establishment — clear.

“For the first time in many decades, American voters have the chance to turn their backs on the political elite, an elite both Democrat and Republican, that has chosen as its leader Hillary Clinton, a dedicated foe of both the First and Second Amendments and the most dishonest, corrupt and incompetent politician ever to seek the American presidency,” the statement said.

“Even such great Americans as Mitt Romney and George Bush have stooped to endorse Mrs. Clinton rather than risk electing a president who follows the will of the people. We have long supported Senator Ted Cruz. He has waged a fearless battle against the elite throughout his career. We are delighted that he is joining us and a growing army of Americans in support of Donald J. Trump’s candidacy for the presidency of the United States of America.”

Position tough to track

Rebekah Mercer, 42, an active philanthropist who lives in a Trump building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, is the middle of three daughters and the director of the Mercer Family Foundation. The foundation reported giving $18.3 million in contributions and grants according to its 2014 tax filing, the most recent available.

Like her father, she rarely gives interviews or comments publicly about her philanthropy. The Stanford University-educated mother of four is nonetheless more visible and hands on. She is frequently photographed attending charity events, and reportedly consistently participates in conference calls about the super PAC’s day to day operations.

Because of the family’s reticence to speak publicly, it’s difficult to determine the motives behind their giving. Stories about Robert Mercer tend to highlight the same few publicly known details: his poker playing, the $2.7 million model train in his basement that became the subject of litigation, his advocacy on behalf of the gold standard, the high-end bakery, now online only, owned by the three Mercer daughters that was featured in Vogue.

Doug Deason, a major political donor who described Rebekah Mercer as a “close friend” while speaking on the panel of major donors at the Texas Tribune Festival, said Robert Mercer is “a very smart, thoughtful person.”

Conservative lawyer Jim Bopp, the general counsel of the James Madison Center for Free Speech, which received a 2011 grant from the Mercer Family Foundation, said he heard from Robert Mercer directly only once, when he called to inquire about a nonpolitical case Bopp was involved in. (Bopp is credited with first bringing the Citizens United case, and is the lead lawyer in other efforts to overturn limits on money in politics.)

Bopp said he’s also spoken to Mercer’s lawyer in the past about cases in which the Mercers are interested. The conversations “are always just about cases, what’s this case about, what are the issues, why is it important,” he said.

Katie Packer, a Republican consultant, described them as “philosophical givers … the Mercers are donors who give because of very specific conservative philosophies.”

Packer is a former Romney deputy campaign manager who founded Our Principles PAC, the group that received $200,000 from the Mercers’ super PAC last March. She said they were brought in by other donors and she doesn’t know them personally.