Robert Mercer is a youthful-looking 70. Robert work(ed) for decades at IBM, where he had a reputation as a brilliant computer scientist. Robert himself, by all accounts, is extremely introverted.
For years, Robert has embraced a supercharged libertarianism with idiosyncratic variations. He is reportedly pro-death penalty, pro-life and pro-gold standard.
Robert’s middle daughter Rebekah (43,known as Bekah to close friends) shares similar political beliefs, but she is also very articulate and, therefore, able to act as her father’s mouthpiece.
The first candidate (the Mercers) threw their financial weight behind was Arthur Robinson, a chemist from Oregon who was running for Congress. Robinson didn’t win, but he got closer than expected, and the Mercers got a taste of what their money could do.
In 2011, they made one of their most consequential investments: a reported $10 million in a new right-wing media operation called Breitbart.
That the family gravitated toward Andrew Breitbart’s upstart website was no accident. They believe Republican elites are too cozy with Wall Street and too soft on immigration, and that American free enterprise and competition are in mortal danger. Unlike other donors, the Mercers are not merely angling to influence the Republican establishment—they want to obliterate it.
The Mercers recognized Bannon as an ideological ally.
On July Fourth weekend in 2014, members of the Mercer clan (Robert, Rebekah and her husband, Sylvain Mirochnikoff) went to visit some new friends. Lee and Alice Hanley, Reagan conservatives who’d made their fortune in Texas oil and gas. Like the Mercers, the Hanleys were convinced that the American political establishment was rotten to its foundations.
That holiday weekend, Lee Hanley revisited the subject of a poll he’d commissioned in 2013 from Pat Caddell, a longtime friend. Hanley had wanted to truly understand the mood of the country and Caddell had returned with something called the “Smith Project”: Americans were hungry for an outsider. It didn’t matter whether the candidate came from the left or the right; voters just wanted somebody different. They had lost all faith in the ruling class—the government, the media, Wall Street. “It showed the entire blow-up of the country coming,” Caddell told me. “A whole new paradigm developing.
With SCL,(a data collecting/analytical company that says it can predict how to shape voter response) Rebekah finally had the chance to prove she could do better(than the establishment GOP at getting a candidate elected). The company’s American branch was renamed Cambridge Analytica, to emphasize the pedigree of its behavioral scientists. Rebekah started flying Alexander Nix, the firm’s Old Etonian CEO, around the country to introduce him to her contacts. Nix, 41, is not a data scientist (his background is in financial services), but he is a showy salesman.
The political veterans were skeptical. Caddell says he was perplexed when Nix wouldn’t show him the instruments CA used to predict voter behavior. He also thought the firm didn’t grasp the seismic shift underway in American politics.
And yet to his great surprise, Bannon vouched for CA, telling Caddell its scientists were “geniuses.” Caddell knew that Bannon was beholden to the Mercers—they were, after all, Breitbart’s part-owners. However, Bannon was also vice president of CA’s board. After he learned of Bannon’s involvement, Caddell stopped asking Bannon questions about CA.
In the end, Bannon helped seal the deal between the Mercers and Cruz, with CA as the glue. “No one ever said directly that the quid pro quo for hiring CA was that the Mercers would support Cruz.” Nevertheless, after CA was engaged, Neugebauer (a garrulous oil-and-gas billionaire from Texas) took a private jet to the Bahamas to meet Robert Mercer. When Neugebauer asked him to donate to Cruz’s bid, Robert was matter-of-fact. The family would start with $11 million.
It wasn’t long before Roe (the straight-talking manager of the Cruz operation) and his team suspected that Nix had promised them a more impressive product than he could deliver.
The two sides were also diverging ideologically.
Before taking the job (of campaign manager for Trump), Bannon phoned Brad Parscale, a 41-year-old San Antonio web designer who had made websites for the Trump family for years. Although Parscale had never worked in politics before, he now found himself in charge of Trump’s entire data operation. Parscale and Bannon quickly bonded. Parscale had his own theory of how Trump could secure victory—in the final weeks, he advised Trump to visit Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, three states no one thought Trump could take.
After the election, it was widely agreed that the GOP needed a nonprofit arm, supported by major donors, to push the president’s agenda across the country. Rebekah wanted CA to be the data engine, which would essentially give her control of the group. And if the venture were successful, she would have an influence over the GOP that no donor had ever pulled off. Theoretically, if the president did something she didn’t like, she could marshal his own supporters against him, since it would be her database and her money.
On December 14, there was a meeting to discuss the outside group. Brad Parscale sat at the head of the table. Around him were roughly 12 people, including Rebekah; Kellyanne Conway; David Bossie; Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer; Jason Miller, then Trump’s senior communications adviser; and Marc Short, Mike Pence’s senior adviser.
When Rebekah pushed for CA to run the new group’s data operation, Parscale pushed back. “No offense to the Mercers,” he said. “First, this group is about Trump, not about the Mercers. Second, I don’t have a problem with hiring Cambridge, but Cambridge can’t be the center of everything, because that’s not how the campaign ran.” The “outside group” is now named America First Policies. Parscale is a member, and its first national TV ads have appeared.
The Mercers have withdrawn completely. When it came to the question of whether America First should employ CA, it was Parscale’s view that prevailed: CA has no role in the group at all. Parscale’s close rapport with the Trump family carried greater weight than Rebekah’s connection with Bannon.
In the end, Rebekah Mercer’s mistake was that she thought she could upend the system and then control the regime she had helped to bring to power. Helping to elect a president wasn’t enough: She wanted the machinery to shape his presidency. Instead, the chaos simply continued. An administration full of insurgents, it turns out, functions in a near-constant state of insurgency.
Bannon is said to be exhausted and stretched. He is largely responsible for the relentless pace of initiatives and executive orders in the early weeks of the administration, because he doesn’t expect to be in the White House for long. “I’m expecting to be fired by the summer,” he has told friends, likening himself to Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister, who was instrumental in enforcing Britain’s Reformation but ended up being beheaded by his boss.
Bannon returns Rebekah’s phone calls when he can. But, according to someone who knows both well, “relations are strained.” Another person who works with both of them says, “I think Bannon, once he finally built a relationship with Trump, didn't need Rebekah as much."
As this piece was going to press, several sources warned me not to count Rebekah out. She still has a stake in Breitbart, which holds tremendous sway over Trump’s base and has recently gone on a no-holds-barred offensive against the GOP health care plan.
And on March 13, Politico reported that some Trump officials were already disillusioned with America First, which they felt had been slow to provide much-needed cover for his policy initiatives. There was talk of turning instead to a new group being launched by Rebekah Mercer. And so she may yet get another chance to realize her grand ambitions.