The Bizarre Far-Right Billionaire Behind Bannon and Trump's Presidency
When all seemed to be falling apart for Trump this summer, one shadowy billionaire offered up his own massive political infrastructure, which included Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, and saved Trump’s campaign from demise
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THOMAS HEDGES: July 2016, and a very disorganized Trump campaign is headed into an equally chaotic Republican National Convention.
The latest fundraising numbers for June are dismal, and according to CNBC, Trump is second-guessing his decision to make Mike Pence his running mate, making last minute phone calls to assess the pick, just days before the event.
CNN: Trump's uncertainty even played out in public, during a phone interview with Greta Van Susteren.
DONALD TRUMP: I haven't made my final final decision.
HEDGES: Past GOP candidates John McCain, and Mitt Romney, have decided to skip the convention. So have both former Bush presidents. One day before the convention, and there's still no official list of speakers. Nevertheless, July 18th rolls around and the GOP has to move forward with a show.
MAN/CROWD: (chanting) ... USA! USA! ...
HEDGES: The convention is considered a disaster. It exposes a party in disarray. Delegations from Iowa and Colorado stage a walkout over a critical rules vote.
DENVER 7 NEWS: Right there in the top right you can actually see Kendall Unger(?) in blue. She's one of the leaders of the, Never Trump, or the Dump Trump movement, trying to get the rules changed at the start of the convention, to let delegates vote their conscience.
HEDGES: Subsequent polls show Trump trailing Clinton, and need to win swing states. Coupled with a string of bad press stories, including Trump's fight with the family of a fallen Iraq vet, the Trump campaign seems to have lost its momentum.
JOE SCARBOROUGH: Donald Trump is just not doing what is required to win.
HEDGES: In a surprise move, the Trump campaign shakes up its leadership at the 11th hour, bringing on far right editor-in-chief of Breitbart News, Steve Bannon, along with former Republican pollster, Kellyanne Conway. Days later, David Bossie, head of the corporate advocacy group, Citizens United is brought on as Deputy Manager of the campaign. Finally, the campaign also hires the data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica, tasked with probing the American voter's mind.
At a glance, these last-minute developments look desperate and disjointed.
DANA PERINO: I'm a... I don't know what they're doing. I wish I could tell you.
HEDGES: But a closer look reveals something different. It reveals a hidden connection between these players, a thread between the seemingly random cast of actors.
Enter billionaire hedge fund manager Robert Mercer, and his daughter Rebecca. They've been eyeing Trump ever since their first choice, Ted Cruz, dropped out of the primaries back in May.
TED CRUZ: We are suspending our campaign.
HEDGES: The fuel behind Mercer's influence are the absurd sums of money he approves at the investment company he runs, Renaissance Technologies, based on Long Island. Its famed Medallion Fund is one of the most successful hedge funds in investing history. Averaging 72% returns before fees, over more than 20 years. A statistic that baffles analysts, and outranks the profitability of other competing funds, like the ones George Soros and Warren Buffet run.
In 2015, Mercer had single-handedly catapulted Cruz to the front of the Republican field. Throwing more than $13 million into a super PAC he created for the now failed candidate. But with the Trump campaign faltering, and struggling for support, there's a second chance for the Mercers to make a big bet.
The Trump campaign is well aware of this, in fact, sources within Mercer's super PAC would later tell Bloomberg News that shortly after Cruz drops out of the race, Ivanka Trump and her wealthy developer husband Jared Kushner, approach the Mercers, asking if they'd be willing to shift their support behind Trump. The answer is an eventual, but resounding yes.
In the months leading up to Trump's presidential win, the Mercers would prove a formidable force. Beginning after the disastrous Republican Convention in July, they would furnish the Trump campaign with millions of dollars, and new leadership, but they would also furnish it with something more -- a vast network of non-profits, strategists, media companies, research institutions and super PACs that they themselves funded and largely controlled.
CARRIE LEVINE: I think what you've seen is a lot of these organizations in this network come out to play a role in the 2016 elections.
HEDGES: With the Mercer family in the picture, the post-convention shake-up starts to make sense. Take Steve Bannon. He and Robert Mercer have been close for years, and Mercer is a top investor at Breitbart News, where Bannon was Chief Editor.
Kellyanne Conway also comes out of this network. Before becoming co-manager of Trump's campaign, she headed up operations for Robert Mercer's super PAC when it was still supporting Ted Cruz. And as for Deputy Campaign Manager, David Bossie, he was president of Citizens United, an organization Mercer has heavily funded since at least 2010.
Cambridge Analytica, the mysterious data-mining firm that received grudging praise after predicting the race's outcome more accurately than any other polling company, is also heavily funded by Robert Mercer, and was employed by the Cruz campaign before Mercer switched over to Trump. In fact, the Mercers' political infrastructure is so entrenched, that Rebecca Mercer herself sits on the 16-person executive committee of Trump's transition team.
Mercer's foray into the White House may seem to have been born partly out of luck, especially with Trump, instead of Cruz, as a stalking horse. But his rise to power was systematic, and it was years in the making.
The web of connections Mercer's built over the last decade is vast and complex. It includes efforts to dismantle tax law, and weaken the IRS.
It's about funding quack scientists and conspiracy theorists, who blame the government for, among other things, playing a role in the San Bernardino Massacre. Or of colluding with the United Nations, and using climate change as an excuse to implement environmental laws meant to depopulate America's Midwest. It's about pouring money into the neo-conservative John Bolton super PAC, which props up candidates who ascribe to Bolton's hawkish foreign policy.
But one of Mercer's earliest activist ventures was financing a slew of fringe documentary projects that have helped raise the profiles of people like Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman and most notably, the director of those films, Steve Bannon.
Bannon, who was previously a naval officer and Goldman Sachs investment banker, made his first documentary in 2004 about Ronald Reagan. It retold his biography, using washed out black and white archival footage of the Hollywood actor. Painting him as a brave protector of Western democracy from the threat of Communism.
RONALD REAGAN: You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We'll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we'll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.
HEDGES: The film wasn't a commercial success. According to the reviews, it was a flop. But it developed a cult following, and it revealed that there was an untapped audience for this sort of film, which demonized America's current establishment, while lamenting the death of old-time conservatism under Reagan.
In the Face of Evil would also connect Bannon to conservative author Peter Schweitzer, whose namesake book the film was based on... he would also connect him to another rising conservative fixture Bannon met at a screening of the Reagan film in Beverley Hills, a man Bannon recalled in a Bloomberg piece, who came up to him after the showing like a bear, he said, who's squeezing me, like my head's going to blow up, and saying how we've got to take back the culture.
His name? Andrew Breitbart, a conservative commentator who for the next few years would join Bannon and Schweitzer in their efforts to establish a fresh conservative narrative with Breitbart himself focusing on an idea for a new media company. Something partly inspired by a trip to Jerusalem, and the need to create an outlet that would be unapologetically pro-freedom, and pro-Israel, he said, something that would come to fruition in 2007, and that he would call, Breitbart.com.
One of the things I admired about Breitbart, Bannon said, in that Bloomberg story, was that the dirtiest word for him was punditry. Our vision, Andrew's vision, was always to build a global, centre-right, populist antiestablishment news site. But that wasn't all. What Bannon, Schweitzer, and Breitbart, really wanted to forge, was a multi-tiered effort to push their agenda. They wanted to fund Schweitzer's books and Bannon's films. Ultimately, they wanted to create a media infrastructure big enough to pump their ideology into America's national discourse.
But they needed more investors, and they needed large investors, people who could fund this giant operation for a sustained period of time. Because what this right wing trio had set out to do wasn't to simply start a business; it was to transform America's rage.
It's largely white, rural, working class discontent into a political movement that would storm Washington first in the form of the Tea Party, and, again six years later, in the form of Trump.
That influx of cash would come from the organization more famous now for the Supreme Court decision it inspired, than for the media and political work it's done for decades, thanks in part to funders like the Koch brothers and, of course, Robert Mercer.
The pro-corporate advocacy group, Citizens United, was created in 1988 and for years it had pumped out television ads, films and other forms of media content that sought to put pressure both on Democrats, as well as more moderate Republicans, to embrace a far right, corporate-friendly, approach to politics.
CITIZENS UNITED PROMO: Remember that the left controls Hollywood, they control entertainment, they control the movies, the control television, they control mass media. They control, certainly, journalism.
RICK SANTORUM: And so what Citizens United has figured out, is that through the media they can, in fact, move public opinion, they can shape America and thereby shape Washington.
HEDGES: It was that effort that gave rise to the film, Hillary: The Movie, which in turn led to the Supreme Court case that changed the way politics is done in the United States.
It's worth noting that the Citizens United decision to allow for unlimited campaign contributions through super PACs didn't originate from any billionaire, or corporation, directly complaining about contribution limits.It originated from this documentary, which Bannon directed, and which FEC rules barred from being shown, because it fell under the category of electioneering communications.
Essentially, union and corporate-funded groups like Citizens United couldn't air anything critical about a candidate within 30 days of the primaries, and 60 days of the general elections.
The Supreme Court's decision to strike down that rule opened up the floodgates for unlimited campaign spending, which Citizens United and its billionaire and corporate donors seized upon, Citizens United has been heavily funded by the Koch brothers, and their network of donors, which Mercer joined early on.
But in 2010, Mercer decides to extend his reach and influence beyond the confines of that network. Beginning first with Breitbart News, which at the time had hit a bit of a rough patch, Andrew Breitbart had put out a misleading video that showed a Department of Agriculture official, Shirley Sherrod, making what people characterized as racist remarks towards white people.
Sherrod was fired, and when it came out afterwards that the clip had been manipulated, Sherrod sued Andrew Breitbart. The lawsuit fell on the heels of another false video exposé Breitbart had done a year earlier, involving the association of Community Organizations For Reform Now, known as ACORN, which had resulted in their loss of private and government funding. After the Sherrod video, the media virtually blacklisted him, along with his site from the mainstream.
The hiccup prompted Mercer to capitalize on the event. He reportedly put upwards of $10 million in the company later that year, making him a top investor.
The next two years are spent expanding and sharpening these media connections. Bannon continues to produce documentaries, including, The Undefeated, featuring the rise of Sarah Palin, as well as, Occupy Unmasked, which aimed to discredit the 2011 protest movement.
ANDREW BREITBART: These people feel morally justified to commit crimes.
HEDGES: Schweitzer continues publishing his books, most notably, "Clinton Cash", in 2015, which Bannon adapted into a documentary, and which fuelled the Right's obsession with Hillary Clinton, and the financial sources for her foundation.
Meanwhile, Mercer is quietly lubricating the political and financial empire, doling out money to a whole slew of conservative non-profits, such as the Heartland Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, Citizens United and many more.
Then suddenly, in 2012 Andrew Breitbart dies from a heart attack.
WOLF BLITZER: ...Andrew Breitbart, dead at the age of 43. Breitbart was certainly a driving force in the Tea Party movement, as well as a very influential political voice on the Internet.
HEDGES: Mercer, and Bannon, who was a board member at Breitbart, quickly rearranged leadership roles in an effort not to lose any momentum.
In fact, Breitbart's death seemed to have been a morbid blessing for the group. Breitbart, unlike his compatriots, had always been more of an old school, more moderate conservative. He'd worked at the Drudge Report, which many saw as a bullhorn for the Bush administration.
More surprisingly, he'd been a researcher for Ariana Huffington, and helped create an early model for what would become the liberal Huffington Post.
So, Mercer, Bannon and Schweitzer crank up the heat. In the months after Breitbart dies, Bannon is made executive chairman of Breitbart.com. Schweitzer, meanwhile, founds a new research group that focuses on feeding content to Breitbart News, and Citizens United, for their documentary projects, called the Government Accountability Institute. Where Mercer is a top funder, while Bannon sits on the board.
These shifts are all taking place in the shadows of the presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Romney epitomized the GOP establishment, and Mercer must have been reluctant to give to his campaign. He ended up throwing about a million dollars into a super PAC supporting Romney, a paltry number compared to the $15 million he spent on Trump, and the $13 million he spent on Cruz.
Romney's loss was a heavy defeat for Republican voters around the country. With so many Americans still struggling to get back on their feet after the 2009 economic crisis, his defeat angered many GOP voters. Some blamed Obama and the Democrats. Others blamed the Republican establishment, including Romney himself.
But at the NYU Club in New York, shortly after the news of Obama's re-election, one unexpected voice would take a small group of wealthy donors by storm, blasting the Romney team for dropping the ball on their data mining and canvassing operations. That woman was Rebecca Mercer. Robert Mercer's daughter.
After Romney, Rebecca became her father's right hand. Before that, Robert Mercer's role in his political dealings was to supply money to the people he admired and trusted, people like Bannon, Schweitzer and Breitbart. Rebecca wanted to change that. She wanted accountability over the money her father spent, and Romney's failure provided an opportunity to step into the Republican arena, and assert her and her father's agenda.
Between 2012 and 2016, she would take formal leadership positions at the think tanks and non-profits her father funded. She became a director at Peter Schweitzer's Government Accountability Institute. She took over the Mercer family foundation, and more recently, she managed her father's super PAC, alongside Kellyanne Conway.
She and her father began to engage in what you could call, a kind of sniper fire politics, investing money in very specific races and causes.
CARRIE LEVINE: You've seen Robert Mercer put money into super PACs in races that have something to do with, often tax. This cycle, he gave money to a super PAC backing up primary challenger Senator John McCain in Arizona. McCain is a Republican, and he was the co-chair of the Senate Committee that investigated Renaissance's tax strategies.
HEDGES: McCain would later say he thought Mercer was doing this because of that investigation, which was looking into whether Renaissance Technologies had avoided more than $6 billion in taxes, over the course of 14 years.
For the 2016 Republican primaries, Robert Mercer decided to put his support behind Ted Cruz, and so did Bannon. But as Cruz faltered, and took positions that ran counter to Bannon's conservative agenda -- like supporting the TPP -- Mercer and Bannon begin questioning their support of a candidate who was too obviously trying to appease both the disgruntled American voter, as well as corporate interests in Washington.
In the end, Cruz's evangelical Christian persona failed to cover up his true identity, which was as a Harvard-educated lawyer, who'd worked for years in Washington. Including as a young clerk in the Supreme Court.
Robert Mercer seldom makes public appearances, and he never talks to the press. The only time he's spoken publicly was in 2014, after he received a lifetime achievement award from the Association for Computational Linguistics. In the hour-long acceptance speech he gives in Baltimore, Maryland, Mercer spends almost all of his time talking about his passion for computers.
ROBERT MERCER: I really loved everything about computers. I loved the solitude of the computer lab late at night, I loved the air-conditioned -- the smell of the place, I loved the sound of the disks whirring and the printers clacking.
HEDGES: None of his remarks are political, except for one comment he makes when he's talking about the time he worked at the air force weapons lab in New Mexico, and the one day he discovered how to make their computers run about a hundred times faster.
ROBERT MERCER: ...And then a strange thing happened. Instead of running the old computations in 1/100th of the time, the powers that be at the lab ran computations that were 100 times bigger. I took this as an indication that one of the most important goals of government-financed research is not so much to get answers, as it is to consumer the computer budget.
ROBERT MERCER: Which has left me ever since, with a jaundiced view of government-financed research.
HEDGES: Robert Mercer doesn't quite fit into an established upper class. He isn't exactly a Wall Street type, and neither are the 300 employees, many of whom are advanced mathematicians and physicists, who work at Renaissance Technologies brainchild, the Medallion Fund.
CARRIE LEVINE: I think it's interesting to note that this is a guy, who has a programming background, a coding background, who didn't start out on Wall Street, and so he'd come to this through sort of a different route. He's spoken very little about his political giving, and so we can't say a lot about his motives, at least not what he's said.
HEDGES: The fund is known for its secrecy. It's been closed to outside investors since 2005, and what exactly they trade isn't fully understood. What is known is that what Mercer, along with retired Renaissance Technologies founder James Simons, and co-CEO Peter Brown have done, is master the math behind something called quantitative trading, which involves gaming the stock market using advanced algorithms and data analysis to create unprecedented profits.
BILL BLACK: All they do, is make one group of, literally, billionaires, slightly richer than another group of billionaires, and in the process they make themselves billionaires. But they add absolutely nothing to the economy, or the world effectively.
HEDGES: 2016's list of biggest political donors is stacked with billionaires who've made their money by engaging in what amount to different forms of gambling. The largest donor of the cycle, Tom Steyer, is a hedge fund manager. The second, Sheldon Adelson, is a casino magnate. The third, Donald Sussman, is a quant fund manager. Strangely enough, founder of Renaissance Technologies, James Simons, who's one of the Democrats largest donors, is number five on that list, while his colleague and Republican counterpart Robert Mercer, is number seven.
BILL BLACK: It's not a coincidence that the enormous amounts of wealth go to people who are connected with gambling. But recall that they don't gamble. Adelson is the house. (laughs) Right? The house mathematically, is going to win. And the idea at the hedge fund is, again, to have better math than the other billionaires, so that statistically you're going to win.
HEDGES: Casino capitalism has given people like Robert and Rebecca Mercer, riches and power beyond most people's imagination. But the role of activist billionaires in American politics isn't new. It's just become stronger, as wealth is concentrated in fewer hands. With the top 1% of Americans today holding onto 40% of the country's wealth, and with much of that increase taking place in the finance and energy sectors of the economy, the rise of people like Robert Mercer and the Koch brothers, reflects how billionaires have gradually taken more direct control over politicians and the state.
BILL BLACK: One of the things that is really useful, if you're a billionaire, and that you get your money by doing nothing socially useful, is to valorize what you're doing and to demonize anyone that might actually restrict it by law, regulation, even social mores.
And propaganda is historically the answer to that.
HEDGES: An essential part of Trump's propaganda, is that he represents the interests of workers, the little guy, and will take on the big corporations. But the proof of his loyalties is in his appointments. His Cabinet, the richest in history, along with his close advisors include major players from Wall Street and corporate America.
Rex Tillerson, Andrew Puzder, Linda McMahon, Stephen Swharzman, Todd Ricketts, Gary Cohn, Steve Bannon, Betsy DeVos, Elaine Chao, Wilbur Ross, Steven Mnuchin, Carl Icahn, Peter Theil. These are the true faces of a Trump presidency.
In the end, there are no workers, or little guys on the Trump team. Only the allies of rainmakers Robert and Rebecca Mercer, the billionaires whose political hedge pushed Donald Trump into the White House.