American Oligarchs

The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer on the billionaires supporting—and opposing—President Trump.

David Koch in Columbus, Ohio
David Koch, pictured, and his brother Charles have never fully embraced Donald Trump.

Gage Skidmore/Wikipedia

It’s no secret that the Republican Party—and indeed our politics more broadly—has been under the influence of rich, often secretive donors. But the Trump administration remains, in this regard as in so many others, sui generis. Not only has Trump put forward an agenda that caters almost exclusively to the wealthy, but several rich Americans play an unprecedented role in his White House’s decision-making structure, such as it is. One of those very rich Americans is Robert Mercer, the hedge fund honcho and extreme right-winger who—along with his daughter Rebekah—has close connections to both Steve Bannon and Trump, and is a partial owner of Breitbart News.

Mercer is the subject of Jane Mayer’s latest profile in the New Yorker. Mayer is a longtime writer for the magazine whose work chronicling the Koch Brothers became the subject of her book, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. I spoke by phone with Mayer this week. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why the Koch brothers have never fully embraced Trump, how Republicans will try to move on from the health care disaster, and the disturbing magnetism of Steve Bannon.

Isaac Chotiner: Why did the Koch brothers’ network come out against Paul Ryan’s health care bill? It doesn’t make obvious sense on its face.

Jane Mayer: It doesn’t? It makes sense to me.

OK great, tell me why.

If you boil the Kochs down to their essence, they hate government, and they’ve helped financially support the Tea Party Movement, which targeted Obama’s health care bill as one of its top priorities. They’ve been gunning for this for years. They were against Paul Ryan’s version because they thought it was too generous and still involved too much big government. They were coming at it from the right, from the direction of the Freedom Caucus. The essence of why they didn’t get behind Trump in a big way was that they never felt that he was a sincere libertarian-type conservative. They’re not in the same place.

But they also seem like pretty savvy operators, and this was probably their best, if not only, chance to kill Obamacare. That’s why I asked.

They probably think that they’ll get a better deal later. They’re radicals.

Do you know what their relationship was or is with Paul Ryan?

He has been, for many years, their fair-haired boy, and they’ve put a ton of money into him and worked very closely with him. On this and on the possibility of a border tax, they’re in very different places.

You say they’re radicals, but I’m wondering about the degree to which you think they are going to be willing to compromise to get things done now that a Republican is president.

It’s complicated and hard to know, because they have moments of ruthless pragmatism where their business is involved, where they will make deals in order to protect their bottom line. But, in truth, if you go back and remember where they’re coming from, these are the brothers who ran against Ronald Reagan in 1980 because they thought he was too liberal. They are never satisfied with the political possibilities in the country because the politics is never far right enough for them. Basically, Charles Koch is a purist, so he’s not going to be happy until there’s just a candidate who is so far right that we’re falling off the edge of the Earth.

How much interaction is there right now between the Koch network and Trump?

I don’t want to claim to know everything about this, but there are some really interesting dynamics, and one of them is that Vice President Pence was Charles Koch’s favorite candidate of anyone to run for president in 2012. It’s a safe bet to assume that Charles Koch really likes Mike Pence. One of Mike Pence’s top staffers right now is Marc Short, and until recently, Marc Short ran the Kochs’ political network. He was the Kochs’ top political operative, running their group Freedom Partners, which is kind of the kitty. They have money and all their allied millionaires’ and billionaires’ donors’ money in it. There are also people scattered around in many other places that are key Koch people. Scott Pruitt is one of their favorites.

So their people are in key positions, but I think they’ve never been comfortable with Trump because he’s kind of not reliable from any direction. For character reasons, I think they felt he’s not going to be someone who you can control, particularly because it’s unclear if he can control himself.

They spoke out against the Muslim ban, right?

Yes, and Charles Koch is a libertarian purist. Among the things he believes in are pretty much open borders and free trade. They’ve always been pro-immigration. They don’t want tariffs on their products. They’re a huge global conglomerate at this point. They’ve got branches all around the world, and they’re huge importers of oil from Canada, which they then refine. For many reasons, Trump’s economic nationalism and nativist tendencies kind of rub them the wrong way, as did the Muslim ban. Every now and then Charles Koch says something that comes out quite principled-sounding.

Trump has gone around blaming everyone for the failure of the health care bill, from the Freedom Caucus, to the Democrats, to perhaps some passive-aggressive shots at Paul Ryan, but he hasn’t said anything about the Koch brothers, who obviously funded this big effort to oppose the bill. What do you make of that?

I am fascinated by it. In the past, when Trump was running for president, he called out the Kochs by name and he dissed his Republican rivals for going to their fundraising sessions, and described his rivals as puppets for playing ball with the Kochs. He seemed fearless about the Kochs during the campaign, but now he’s being completely silent about them, and they have played as big a role as anyone in opposing Trump’s health care deal. I don’t know what’s going on. I’m really curious to find out. It seems as if he’s holding his fire.

Can you describe the way in which the Mercers are ideologically different than Trump? They seem more like hard-core Breitbarters.

The Kochs’ ideology is indivisible from their bottom line. It may be that they are pure ideologues who really believe in extreme libertarianism, but that kind of ideology is also great for their business, no regulation, no taxes. What could be better for a company that is run by polluting billionaires? You can see a lot of self-interest in where they’re coming from.

There’s some of that in the Mercers. They, too, are for low taxes and very few regulations. Bob Mercer’s a hedge fund manager of an enormously lucrative hedge fund, so for someone earning what is estimated to be about $135 million a year, cutting taxes on the high-bracket earners is great for him. That’s in his self-interest, and cutting regulations on the finance industry is also great for him. Keeping the carried interest loophole is great for him.

But he also just plain has kind of a bizarre ideology. He’s an eccentric, so some of his views, for instance, on global warming, say: He doesn’t believe in man-made global warming. It’s not because he’s in the fossil fuel business; he’s not. It’s just that he doesn’t believe in it.

He also seems to think if you dropped a nuclear weapon on his house that he might be OK.

Not actually on his house. He thinks that low levels of radiation that happen after a nuclear bomb is detonated are actually healthy for people who live outside of the immediate blast zone. He’s got really weird views. That’s the thing that was scary to me. It’s great that the country is filled with all kinds of points of view and personalities and eccentrics and everything else, but what’s scary is when somebody with views that are so eccentric has so much influence over the rest of us simply because he has so much money and so that a minority view gets imposed on everybody else.

Listen to Isaac Chotiner’s discussion with the New Yorker’s Elif Batuman on his new podcast I Have to Ask:

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What did you make of Breitbart, which they have a stake in, coming out against the bill?

The question I’ve had about it is, what does Steve Bannon really think of that health care bill? We know that before he entered the Trump White House he made a regular feature of attacking Paul Ryan, and so did the Mercers, who were funding him, and they did so through Breitbart. Did Bannon really change his point of view in the White House, or is he sort of quietly tolerating this? It’s really hard to know where he was on that.

Can we get into one other thing, which is where the Mercers formed their views? A huge influence on their thinking has been Steve Bannon. People who know the Mercer family have said, they’ve worried that Bannon might not be just a kind of benign mentor, but maybe some kind of Svengali or something. No matter what, for better or for worse, he’s been a big influence on the Mercers’ politics. If they’re heading off in some direction, you have to wonder if he gets some credit for that.

From your reporting about Bannon, what exactly is it that people, whether it’s Trump or the Mercers or even journalists who profile him, find so magnetic? He has developed this reputation as a serious intellectual and master planner, despite his vile views.

I interviewed him for the piece on Mercer, so I had a chance to talk to him myself. I only spoke to him for a while, but I could see what his appeal might be. He’s engaging to speak to, he’s articulate, he’s got a sense of humor, he seems to know a lot of history and a lot about politics. He’s an interesting person to talk to. He’s a person who’s interested in ideas, and I think that’s very appealing to most political reporters and to many people in politics.

He’s not your mentor, though, Jane, just to have that on the record?

Not yet. I’m happy to spend more time with him if he’ll spend more time with me so I can figure him out better, because it seems to me there are a lot of contradictions in his politics, and I’d like to understand them better. He talks about taking on the elites, yet he’s part of an administration that has empowered elites like no other that I’ve covered since the Reagan years.

Do you think Bannon’s influence on Trump stems from the fact that he was able to offer some sort of at least semi-coherent overarching explanation of Trumpism?

To some extent that’s true, but if you talk to Bannon, he’ll point out that Trump has been saying a lot of the same things for quite a long time. I think you can overdo it on this subject of Bannon being the wizard behind Trump. I went and listened to a speech Trump gave in April of 2014, which was really quite a ways back. Bannon was actually there for it. You listen to Trump, and he’s much the same, and this was before Bannon was doing anything with him. He’s breaking into a Republican orthodoxy by defending middle-class programs like Social Security and Medicare, at the same time saying, “I can get you a better deal on trade. I’m a good deal-maker, and you’re getting ripped off.” Bannon liked that message.

That begs the question of what will happen if Trump starts substantively tackling populist policies, such as a major infrastructure bill or renegotiating NAFTA, in more protectionist ways. How do you think people like the Mercers, let alone the Kochs, feel about those issues?

There are two Mercers, the father and the daughter, and the father is a libertarian who hates the idea of big government spending, so he’s very much against the infrastructure bill. Rebekah Mercer, the daughter, is sort of more open to that, so they’re in slightly different places. The Kochs are against that, unless it’s infrastructure spending in the form of tax cuts somehow. Anything that weakens and shrinks the government will be fine with them. Anything that builds it up, they’re not going to support.

I think what you can expect is that the Kochs will keep using outside money to lobby against those parts of Trumpism they don’t like, and that’s just what they did with the health care bill. They’re spending all over the country, and they’ve got operations in 35 states. They haven’t gone away, contrary to people’s theories. They’re still active, and their money is still being spent every day.