politics

Trump Isolates ‘Leaker’ Bannon in Feud as Mercers Cut Off Money

Updated on
  • The rift between Trump and his former strategist deepened
  • Bannon’s plans for 2018 populist revolution in doubt
Why Trump's Break With Steve Bannon Is a Big Deal

Steve Bannon faces fresh doubt about whether he can pull off his populist revolution within the Republican Party after his top financial patron cut ties with him on Thursday in the wake of his feud with President Donald Trump.

Trump, who spoke by phone with donor Rebekah Mercer shortly before she issued a statement rebuking Bannon Thursday, crowed about the break between the two in a tweet Friday morning: “The Mercer Family recently dumped the leaker known as Sloppy Steve Bannon. Smart!”

Rebekah Mercer said in the statement that she and her father, Robert Mercer, the former co-chief executive officer of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, would not finance his projects. The Mercers and their fortune have been a mainstay of Bannon’s political operation.

“I support President Trump and the platform upon which he was elected,” Rebekah Mercer said. “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.”

Her statement followed a Wednesday afternoon call with the president, two people familiar with the conversation said. But while the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said Thursday that Breitbart News should consider dumping Bannon, its executive chairman, several people at the company said there was no sign he was leaving.

Trump’s dramatic break with Bannon, his former chief strategist, may help Republicans avoid further electoral embarrassments like December’s defeat of Roy Moore for an Alabama Senate seat, a race in which Bannon had enthusiastically backed Moore. But Bannon considers himself the standard-bearer for the populist, nationalist wing of the Republican Party that carried Trump to office, so the divide also risks alienating a swath of white, middle-class voters important for the party’s midterm prospects.

The Mercers’ move -- and Trump’s maneuvering to precipitate it -- illustrates the depth of the president’s rift with Bannon, who is quoted in a book by author Michael Wolff criticizing Trump and insulting the Trump family. Among other statements, Bannon said it was “treasonous” and “unpatriotic” for Donald Trump Jr. to have a June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer that the president’s son thought would deliver dirt on Hillary Clinton.

In a tweet on Thursday night, Trump said the book was "full of lies, misrepresentations and sources that don’t exist."

Mercers’ Reach

The Mercers’ wealth has been vital to Bannon, to the Republican Party and Trump.

In the years leading up to the 2016 election, Bannon became a close political adviser to the family and directed their money to a series of interlocking projects that advanced his political ideology.

They extended a financial lifeline to Breitbart, allowing Bannon to build it into a conservative juggernaut. Their family foundation funded another Bannon project, the 2015 book “Clinton Cash,” which presaged Trump’s “Crooked Hillary” label for his election opponent. They also invested in Cambridge Analytica, a data firm Trump’s campaign hired to target voters in the race’s final months.

Since 2006, the Mercers have given $41.5 million to Republican candidates, committees and super PACs, including $2 million to Make America Number 1, which supported Trump in the general election, according to Federal Election Commission records. Rebekah Mercer gave $449,000 in June 2016 to Trump Victory, a joint fundraising committee that benefited Trump’s campaign, the Republican National Committee and state party committees.

From 2013 to 2015, the Mercer Family Foundation gave $31.4 million to conservative groups including the Federalist Society, the Heritage Foundation, the Heartland Institute and the Cato Institute, according to the foundation’s tax returns.

Roots of Divorce

Bannon left the White House in August but enjoyed access to the president afterward, boasting privately at a conference in Hong Kong in September that he spoke to Trump by phone two to three times a week. While Bannon’s divorce from Trump was rooted in the disastrous Alabama Senate campaign, the split was finalized by a statement the White House issued from the president hours after The Guardian published the first excerpts from “Fire and Fury” on Wednesday.

“When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind,” Trump said.

Trump’s lawyers later sent Bannon a cease-and-desist letter, threatening legal action and accusing him of violating a non-disclosure agreement. The president’s legal team also demanded that Wolff’s publisher, Henry Holt and Co., halt publication of the book, which had been scheduled to begin next week. Instead, the company moved up publication to Friday.

Bannon isn’t the only former Trump aide now in trouble at the White House for comments attributed to them in the book.

Senior Trump advisers are debating whether to press for the ouster of former deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh from a pro-Trump political group and the Republican National Committee over disparaging comments Wolff attributed to her, two people familiar with the discussions said.

Walsh is quoted saying that working for Trump was “like trying to figure out what a child wants.” She has denied making the remark.

Wolff has “dozens of hours” of recordings to back up quotes in his book, including conversations with Walsh and Bannon, Axios reported on Thursday.

— With assistance by Zachary Mider, and Bill Allison

(Updates with Trump tweet beginning in second paragraph.)
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