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To judge from the recent leak of its internal poll numbers, Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign has a lot of ground to make up—and Trump family members have already been sounding alarms that Republican mega donors aren’t stepping up to close the gap. Don Jr. recently called a prominent donor and warned that Trump’s money haul is falling behind where Barack Obama was early in his reelection, while Jared Kushner has privately complained to RNC chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel that Trump’s war chest is not as big as it should be at this point in the cycle.
“Jared doesn’t like what’s going on. He basically believes the RNC should be doing a lot better,” a former West Wing official familiar with the conversations told me. According to this official and another source, Kushner wants to recruit Mike Pence’s former chief of staff, Nick Ayers, back to Washington for a senior position at the RNC to bolster the GOP’s fund-raising. “Jared wants Nick, but Ronna would protest that,” the former West Wing official said. (The White House did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the RNC said the group “has a great working relationship with the team at the White House” and praised McDaniel for “fundraising records month after month.”)
But a large part of the problem is that Trump has lost the financial support of one of his biggest backers in 2016: the Mercers. With their ties to Steve Bannon, Breitbart, and Cambridge Analytica, Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah were superstars last cycle. According to half a dozen sources familiar with the reclusive family’s political activities, the Mercers have drastically curtailed their political donations in recent months and will likely not play a significant role in 2020. “They think that the administration could do so much more. They’ve been very vocal about that to the president,” a person familiar with the Mercers’ thinking told me. “It’s like they’ve disappeared,” the former West Wing official added. “Crickets. They’re gone,” a prominent Republican strategist said.
The numbers tell the story. In 2016, Robert Mercer, the former co-CEO of hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, and his wife, Diana, donated $15.5 million to a variety of different organizations to help elect Trump, and they put up another $1 million for the inaugural committee. They also provided substantial support to Breitbart, which at times seemed to function as an extra arm of the Trump campaign. The Washington Post reported they spent more than $49 million on political activities in 2016 and that year’s election cycle. “The Mercers laid the groundwork for the Trump revolution,” Steve Bannon said in 2017. In addition to the millions the Mercers pumped into Trump’s election, they spent $10 million on Breitbart News and millions more on Cambridge Analytica, the data firm cofounded by Robert Mercer in 2013.
But in 2018 the Mercers donated only $400,000 to the pro-Trump Great America PAC, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Their total political spending dropped to $2.9 million last year. Sources said the Mercers cut back their spending because they felt scarred by the press scrutiny that followed their association with Trump. Two sources said Rebekah’s divorce from her husband is also motivating her to keep a low profile. “This whole thing did not end up well for them,” former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg told me. “They’ve been destroyed,” a former West Wing official said. A former Renaissance executive said: “Bob views all his political spending as a bad investment.” (The Mercers did not respond to requests for comment.)
Like Trump, the Mercers exploded onto the national scene from seemingly nowhere. Robert, a painfully shy computer scientist who reportedly prefers cats to people, never gave interviews. When I approached Robert at Trump’s 2016 election-night party at the New York Hilton, he smiled and walked away.
At that time, the Mercers had become so influential with Trump that they successfully installed their handpicked strategists, Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, to run Trump’s campaign in the closing months of 2016. After Trump won, Rebekah served as a senior member of the transition team. And in December 2016, Trump repaid their loyalty by making an appearance at Robert’s annual costume ball held at his Long Island mansion known as the Owl’s Nest.
But the relationship was stress tested from the beginning of Trump’s term. In March 2017, The New Yorker published an embarrassing profile of Robert Mercer, depicting him as an eccentric recluse. Five months later, Trump exiled Bannon, which drove a wedge between Trump and the Mercers, Bannon’s longtime patrons. Around the same time, Mercer’s support for Trump and Breitbart was outraging Renaissance employees and the fund’s investors, sources told me. (The hedge fund’s founder, James Simons, is among the country’s biggest Democratic donors.) In November 2017, Mercer was pushed out of Renaissance and he publicly transferred his stake in Breitbart to his daughters. A month later, the Mercers’ relationship with Bannon reached a breaking point when Bannon was quoted extensively in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury criticizing the Trump family. Rebekah issued a rare statement distancing herself from Bannon. “My family and I have not communicated with Steve Bannon in many months and have provided no financial support to his political agenda, nor do we support his recent actions and statements,” it read. “Bob and Rebekah both felt so burned by Bannon and the negative publicity,” a person close to the Mercers told me.
Meanwhile, the Mercers’ investment in Cambridge Analytica was putting them in legal jeopardy. A few months after Robert left Renaissance, it was reported that the FBI opened an investigation of Cambridge in the wake of revelations that the firm appropriated private data from more than 50 million Facebook profiles. Last May, the Mercers shut the company down. “The Cambridge investigation really spooked them,” said the prominent Republican strategist.
Another factor driving the Mercers off the national stage is that Trump was never their ideal candidate, despite the millions they spent helping him, sources told me. “They never really liked Trump,” the person close to the Mercers said. During the 2016 Republican primary, the Mercers put all their cards on Ted Cruz. The source recalled that Robert invited Kellyanne Conway, who was then working for a pro-Cruz super PAC, to his Florida mansion and told her to “beat Trump!” What seemed to be most driving the Mercers was a hatred of Hillary Clinton. “Trump was just Bob’s play against Hillary,” the former Renaissance executive said. “Bob said she and her husband were murderers who would destroy the country. He thought she was an evil person and a socialist.”
Without the specter of a Clinton presidency to motivate them, the Mercers are returning to their pre-Trump private existence. Robert didn’t host a costume ball last year. But the family remains active outside of politics. For example, the Mercers’ foundation continues to donate to the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, whose cofounder, Arthur Robinson, is a pro-nuclear energy climate change skeptic who does research on slowing down human aging. “They’re still supporting us at levels that are comparable to what they’ve been,” Robinson told me.