Political News

Donors and Candidates Abandon Bannon After His Break With Trump

Posted January 4, 2018 9:24 p.m. EST
Updated January 4, 2018 9:30 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — Enthusiasm for Stephen K. Bannon’s plans for a fiery Republican revolution had already been fading among some of the donors and candidates he was relying to upend the party’s establishment.

But Bannon’s provocative remarks about President Donald Trump and his family, reported in a new book now scheduled to be released this week, and Trump’s angry response, further alienated some of Bannon’s most important backers — including the family of hedge fund magnate Robert Mercer — leaving Bannon confronting the possibility of a dire fate for a publicity-hungry provocateur: political irrelevance.

The Mercers were blunt Thursday in cutting the cord, reiterating support for Trump while disavowing Bannon’s remarks and disowning his political endeavors. “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,” Rebekah Mercer, Robert Mercer’s daughter, said in a statement. “I have a minority interest in Breitbart News and I remain committed in my support for them.”

The reference to Breitbart seemed an implicit threat. Bannon is chairman of Breitbart, and many staff members there believe there is a strong chance he might lose the job, though he was dismissive of that possibility on the site’s daily editorial conference call Thursday night, according to one person with knowledge of the call.

Bannon’s predicament highlights a stark reality in American politics, unchanged even after Trump’s convention-defying victory: The influence of even the most influential political strategists is inextricably linked to the donors behind them and the politicians in front of them.

“If Trump is openly breaking with him, that dramatically lowers his capital,” said Dan K. Eberhart, an Arizona oil investor and Republican donor who has spoken to Bannon about his plans to build an anti-establishment political operation. “He is a strategic thinker, and a lot of the things he said make sense, but this stuff from the book — I’m not going to defend that.”

Bannon has never been bashful about his ambitions — or his belief in his ability to bounce back. When he was fired from his position as Trump’s chief strategist in the White House in August amid an uproar over Trump’s less-than-full condemnation of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Bannon predicted that he would become even more influential on the outside.

Bannon proclaimed that he would stage a revolt against Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, recruiting primary race challengers who could defeat incumbent Republican senators and remove McConnell from his post. But building and sustaining costly infrastructure is difficult, especially for anti-establishment crusades like the one envisioned by Bannon, who in a speech at a September rally for Roy S. Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate, warned the Republican establishment and its donors that “your day of reckoning is coming.”

As significant, Trump — loyal to only a party of one and hungry for legislative success — was never committed to aiding a coup against congressional Republicans. Indeed, Trump effectively sided with the party establishment by helping to orchestrate his former aide’s political banishment, making Bannon the fall guy for an embarrassing string of political setbacks, most notably Moore’s defeat.

His associates said he was planning a political nonprofit group called Citizens of the American Republic that would spend between $25 million and $30 million — though some advisers predicted a budget as large as $100 million — to seed the primary campaigns. Half the budget was slated to be spent on voter mobilization efforts on the ground in targeted districts for months leading up to elections, with the other half going toward advertising, according to people familiar with the plan. While Bannon publicly bashed the Republican donor class, he spent months quietly courting some of the deepest pockets on the right. Bannon discussed his plans in grandiose, but vague, terms in a series of meetings with donors, including Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon G. Adelson; a Chicago Cubs owner, Todd Ricketts; and a Home Depot founder, Bernard Marcus.

While Bannon boasted that he was turning donors against McConnell, some of the donors who talked to Bannon say he appeared to lack the organization to effectively raise and spend their money. For instance, Bannon did not have staff follow up to collect donations after meetings — a common step in political fundraising — they said. Other donors, they said, resented that word of their conversations with Bannon seemed to leak to the news media in what they regarded as a presumptuous effort to use them to exaggerate his support.

After reports of Bannon’s meetings with Adelson, a representative for the Las Vegas billionaire, Andy Abboud, issued a rare statement pledging loyalty to McConnell and declaring, “The Adelsons will not be supporting Steve Bannon’s efforts.” Abboud added, “For anyone to infer anything otherwise is wrong.”

The loss of the Mercer family’s support will be particularly hard for Bannon to overcome. The Mercers began drifting from Bannon months ago amid concerns about how the controversy he was generating was affecting the family, according to family associates. The Mercers were upset further when they learned that Bannon had privately boasted that they would back him if he ran for president, according to one family associate.

The family has pumped tens of millions of dollars into businesses and groups that formed the platform from which Bannon has waged his populist anti-establishment crusade. Besides their share of Breitbart, they are invested in the political data firm Cambridge Analytica, where Bannon sat on the board, and the investigative nonprofit group Government Accountability Institute, which Bannon co-founded.

In 2015, the institute produced an investigative book called “Clinton Cash” that damaged Hillary Clinton’s then-nascent presidential campaign. And later that year, the institute quietly assembled a research dossier on Trump’s ties to organized crime-linked figures in the United States and Russia, which it shopped to multiple news media outlets. At the time, the Mercers were supporting Sen. Ted Cruz’s campaign. An institute spokesman said that Bannon had nothing to do with that research, and noted that the group did similar research on other candidates, including Cruz.

After Trump vanquished Cruz, the Mercers threw their support — and $2 million in super PAC donations — to Trump and eventually urged him to hire Bannon.

But there were repercussions to the Mercers’ support for Bannon and Breitbart News, which at times allied with white nationalists and other fringe slices of the conservative base. Liberals last year stepped up pressure on institutional investors such as university endowments, foundations and pension funds to withdraw their money from Renaissance Technologies, the $50 billion hedge fund at which Robert Mercer was a top executive.

Amid that pressure, Mercer announced his plans to step down from the helm of Renaissance in a November letter that sought to create distance between himself and Bannon. “I make my own decisions with respect to whom I support politically,” he wrote. “Those decisions do not always align with Mr. Bannon’s.” Rebekah Mercer privately blamed Bannon for at least part of her father’s predicament and declared that she was permanently severing political ties with Bannon, according to multiple associates with whom she discussed the matter. Her family cut off funding for Bannon’s personal protective detail, one associate added. And at the annual holiday party at the Mercers’ Long Island estate, one of the most sought-after tickets for Trump-friendly Republicans, Bannon was not present.

The Government Accountability Institute distanced itself from Bannon, who reports suggested was working with the institute on a “Clinton Cash"-style investigation of McConnell and the political establishment. An institute spokesman stressed that Bannon has had no affiliation with the institute since Rebekah Mercer replaced him as chairman last year when he joined the campaign.

Doug Deason, a major Republican donor and supporter of Trump, said Bannon and the Mercers in many ways were a good match, but that Bannon undermined the potential effect of the partnership.

“They were attracted to him because he’s so brilliant and he’s had some great ideas, but the problem is that he’s got this huge, huge ego — bigger than Donald Trump — and it gets in the way of his success.”

Deason and Eberhart both said that the passage of tax overhaul legislation by the Republican-led Congress made them less likely to support Republican primary challenges like those Bannon has championed.

Bannon had a momentary victory on that front in September when Moore easily won the Republican nomination in Alabama, overcoming the opposition of Trump and McConnell. And he crowed when Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, both of whom have harshly criticized Trump, said they would not run again in 2018.

Yet Moore’s nomination did not inspire a field of insurgents to enter 2018 races and now it is not clear where Bannon will be able to claim an electoral scalp. After Trump’s broadside on Thursday, a number of his preferred candidates found themselves under pressure to denounce Bannon and some, including former Rep. Michael Grimm of New York, did just that.

Another of his candidates, Danny Tarkanian, who is challenging Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, did not rule out eventually appearing with Bannon but distanced himself from the strategist. “I got in the race before I met or talked to or had any relationship with Steve Bannon,” Tarkanian said. “I got in the race because of my support for President Trump’s America First policies.” While Bannon won a wealth of news media coverage for his threats, veteran Republicans were mystified about his strategy of unseating incumbent senators: only eight Republican-held seats are up for grabs in November, hardly the sort of critical mass needed to oust McConnell.

Just as puzzling was when Bannon indicated he would target Trump loyalists and reliable conservatives such as Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, even floating the prospect of Erik Prince, a former Blackwater executive, as a potential challenger in the state.

“If you drilled down into it, it was fantasyland given what the Senate landscape look liked,” said Brian J. Walsh, a Republican strategist, of Bannon’s attempted insurrection.

And Bannon effectively limited his ambitions by declaring a truce with most House Republicans, even though his politics are more at odds with those of House Speaker Paul Ryan than McConnell, and largely ignoring governor’s races.

Bannon declined to comment Thursday.

But late Wednesday night on his radio program, he sounded contrite, betraying none of the defiance and bluster that has landed him on the president’s enemy’s list. He reassured listeners that he stood solidly behind Trump. “The President of the United States is a great man,” Bannon told one caller.