Facebook Fallout Deals Blow to Mercers’ Political Clout


“They’re selling magic in a bottle,” said Matt Braynard, who worked alongside Cambridge on the Trump campaign, for which he served as the director of data and strategy, and now runs Look Ahead America, a group seeking to turn out disaffected rural and blue-collar voters. “And they’re becoming toxic.”

The Mercers have made no public statements about Cambridge Analytica’s troubles. Through a spokeswoman, Ms. Mercer declined to answer questions about her role in Mr. Trump’s circle or the Facebook meeting about Cambridge Analytica.

But the effort by Ms. Mercer’s friend to help mend fences with Facebook hints at both Cambridge’s importance to her family’s political ambitions and the perils posed by Facebook’s ban.

Although a Cambridge spokesman last month downplayed Ms. Mercer’s role at the company — saying she had a “broad business oversight” role and no involvement in its daily operations — she serves on the company’s board and in the past has worked to drum up campaign business for Cambridge, according to Republicans who have worked with or competed against the firm. Former Cambridge employees said she was close to Alexander Nix, the company’s chief executive, who was suspended last month after reports on Cambridge’s harvesting of Facebook data.

Ms. Mercer’s intermediary with Facebook was Matthew Michelsen, a tech entrepreneur and investor based in San Diego, who lists his employer as GothamAlpha, a consulting firm. According to his LinkedIn profile, he has also advised major Silicon Valley companies, including Facebook and Palantir, a data-mining firm and intelligence contractor.

Mr. Michelsen’s meeting came on March 20, the day after Facebook announced that Cambridge had agreed to let it audit the firm’s computer servers. Mr. Michelsen met informally with a Facebook acquaintance who was accompanied by a Facebook lawyer, according to a person briefed on the meeting, and both Cambridge Analytica and the Mercers were discussed. The person discussed the meeting on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about it publicly. No immediate actions were taken as a result of Mr. Michelsen’s outreach.

Mr. Michelsen acknowledged in an interview on Thursday that he visited the company but he would not discuss the purpose of the trip, citing nondisclosure agreements Facebook required him to sign. Ms. Mercer declined to say whether she and Mr. Michelsen had discussed the purpose of the meeting or whether he had briefed her on it afterward.

Cambridge also mounted a more formal effort to assuage Facebook, the person said, sending its own lawyers to meet with Facebook on the same day Mr. Michelsen was there. The Cambridge lawyers asked Facebook officials whether the firm could be reinstated on the platform. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, acknowledged that meeting in an interview with The Times last month, saying that his company had not decided whether to lift the ban.

A Cambridge spokesman did not respond to requests for comment. In a lengthy public statement on Monday, the company stated that “the vast majority of our business is commercial rather than political, contrary to the way some of the media has portrayed us.”

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Stephen K. Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, White House advisers, with Ms. Mercer at the 2017 inauguration. The firm helped the Trump campaign target voters.

In recent years, the Mercers have become among the most prominent and highly scrutinized political donors in the United States. In the early years of the Obama administration, they began doling out tens of millions of dollars to an eclectic array of conservative groups — many of them outside Washington’s mainline Republican establishment. Mr. Mercer invested $10 million in Breitbart News, the nationalist website, bringing on Mr. Bannon as chairman, while Ms. Mercer joined the boards of leading conservative think tanks.

The Mercers were critical of the Republican Party’s existing data apparatus, which was controlled by the party officials and consultants they hoped to disempower. Mr. Mercer bankrolled Cambridge Analytica in 2014, and Ms. Mercer encouraged candidates and PACs that took the family’s money to also hire the family’s data firm. Early in the 2016 presidential campaign, the Mercers backed Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, putting millions of dollars — and Cambridge Analytica — behind him.

But after Mr. Trump prevailed in the primaries, the Mercers switched candidates. In summer 2016, Ms. Mercer helped orchestrate a shake-up that put Mr. Bannon at the head of the Trump campaign. After Mr. Trump won the presidential election, he attended a costume ball at the Mercer estate on Long Island.

Ms. Mercer secured a slot on his transition team and prime seats at his inauguration. As Mr. Trump took office, she sought to take a leading role in America First Policies, a nonprofit formed to back the president’s agenda. Last spring, Ms. Mercer and her father attended the Time 100 black-tie gala, where she was feted as one of the country’s most influential people.

But her insistence on using Cambridge to provide the Trump group with voter data, and other clashes over strategy, alienated other donors and Trump allies, according to other Republicans. Ms. Mercer formed her own group, Making America Great, and hired Emily Cornell, a Cambridge executive, to run it.

Yet after an initial splash of spending in 2017 to promote Mr. Trump’s policies on environmental deregulation and other issues, Making America Great appears to have gone quiet. Ms. Cornell said she was no longer affiliated with Making America Great and could not comment on the group.

In November, Mr. Mercer stepped down from the helm of Renaissance Technologies, one of the world’s most successful hedge funds, as some investors began expressing dismay over his alliance with Mr. Trump.

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Donald J. Trump arriving for a party at the home of Robert Mercer, one of his biggest campaign donors, in December 2016.

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Evan Vucci/Associated Press

The family is likely to retain significant influence in broader conservative circles thanks to its vast fortune, which finances donations that many political organizations and candidates are eager to accept. The family foundation handed out about $20 million to more than two dozen conservative think tanks, charter school groups, watchdog outfits and other nonprofit organizations in 2016, according to its most recent tax return.

Ms. Mercer remains a trustee of the Heritage Foundation, a prominent Washington think tank that has provided the Trump administration with grist for a range of initiatives. The foreign policy hawk John R. Bolton, whose super PAC the Mercers lavished with cash and whom Ms. Mercer once lobbied the White House to make secretary of state, was recently tapped to become Mr. Trump’s national security adviser.

The family has also donated $4.5 million to Republican candidates and super PACs during the 2018 election cycle, putting the Mercers among the top 20 donors in the country. And the father-daughter duo still inspire fear: Virtually no Republicans were willing to speak on the record about the family’s troubles.

“I would not confuse silence with them being out,” said Dan K. Eberhart, a Colorado drilling-services executive who is active in America First Policies, now the lead pro-Trump political advocacy group. “I think they’re very strategic, and I think they’re quiet folks.”

Any contributions the family gives directly to candidates and super PACs will be disclosed to the Federal Election Commission. But their contributions to ideological nonprofit groups like the Heartland Institute, which disputes the scientific consensus on climate change, may become less visible in the future. In 2016, when the Mercers’ backing of Mr. Trump subjected the family to intense public scrutiny, the Mercer foundation’s largest contribution was to DonorsTrust, an advisory group for conservative givers.

That grant, the Mercer foundation’s first recorded contribution to DonorsTrust, could herald a shift in the family’s philanthropic strategy. DonorsTrust helps wealthy conservatives obtain charitable tax benefits while — if so desired — shielding their giving from public view. The donor records a contribution to DonorsTrust and recommends potential recipients, while grantees receive a donation from DonorsTrust charitable vehicles. In 2016, DonorsTrust disbursed more than $66 million worth of such grants.

“Donor-advised funds offer you any level of privacy you’d like from the receiving organization,” states a promotional pamphlet available from the DonorsTrust website. “A donor can ask the fund provider to share their full name with one favored grantee and keep their identity private from other.” Such privacy can be useful to donors who “may be supporting a sensitive or personal cause that could endanger familial or professional harmony,” according to the pamphlet.

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Alexander Nix, chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, at the Concordia Summit for public-private business partnerships in New York in September. The firm claimed to have developed psychographic profiles that could predict the political leanings of every American adult.

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Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Such mechanisms, which are legal, are used by many donors on the right and the left. Ms. Mercer declined to answer questions about whether she intended to shift more of her family’s future political philanthropy into intermediaries like DonorsTrust. A 2017 tax return for the Mercer foundation is not yet publicly available.

“Ms. Mercer is a private person,” her spokeswoman said in a statement. “And she does not intend to discuss with the media either the conversations she has with her close friends or her philanthropic and charitable giving.”

Lawson Bader, the president of DonorsTrust, referred questions to the Mercers. “I do not discuss DonorsTrust accounts real or imagined,” he said in an email.

The Facebook scandal has hit just as the Mercers appear to be expanding their business in the world of big data. Public records show that Ms. Mercer, her sister Jennifer and Mr. Nix serve as directors of Emerdata, a British data company formed in August by top executives at Cambridge Analytica and its affiliate, SCL Group, according to British corporate records.

Incorporation documents state that Emerdata specializes in “data processing, hosting and related activities.” An SCL official told Channel 4, a British television station, that Emerdata was established last year to combine SCL and Cambridge under one corporate entity.

Exactly what ambitions the Mercers, who joined the Emerdata board last month, have for the company is unclear. Another Emerdata director, Johnson Ko Chun Shun, is a Hong Kong financier and business partner of Erik Prince — the brother of the education secretary, Betsy DeVos, and founder of the private security firm formerly known as Blackwater. Mr. Ko, who declined to comment, is a substantial shareholder and deputy chairman in Mr. Prince’s Africa-focused logistics company, Frontier Services Group.

Mr. Ko and Mr. Prince have links to the Chinese government: Another major Frontier investor is Citic, a state-owned Chinese financial conglomerate that for decades has employed the sons and daughters of the Communist Party’s elite families.

Emerdata has a second Hong Kong-based director, Peng Cheng. Little public information about Ms. Peng, a British citizen, is available. But a woman with the same name is the chief executive of a publishing and online game company located in the same Hong Kong office tower as Frontier Services. In 2016, Mr. Ko’s brokerage company said it would buy a stake in Ms. Peng’s company, Culturecom.

While in Hong Kong in September to speak at a conference, Mr. Nix told Bloomberg that Cambridge Analytica was looking into China for commercial ventures. “We’ve been scoping this market for about a year,” he said. “We see huge opportunity to bring some of these technologies to advertising and marketing space brands.”

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‘You Hate America!’: How ‘the Caravan’ Story Exploded on the Right


The sensationalization of this story and others like it seems to serve a common purpose for Mr. Trump and other immigration hard-liners: to highlight the twin dangers of freely roving migrants — especially those from Muslim countries — and lax immigration laws that grant them easy entry into Western nations.

The narrative on the right this week, for example, mostly omitted that many people in the caravan planned to resettle in Mexico, not the United States. And it ignored how many of those who did intend to come here would probably go through the legal process of requesting asylum at a border checkpoint — something miles of new wall and battalions of additional border patrol would not have stopped.

“They end up in schools on Long Island, some of which are MS-13!” declared Brian Kilmeade on the president’s preferred morning news program, “Fox & Friends,” referring to the predominantly Central American gang.

The coverage became so distorted that it prompted a reporter for Breitbart News who covers border migration, Brandon Darby, to push back. “I’m seeing a lot of right media cover this as ‘people coming illegally’ or as ‘illegal aliens.’ That is incorrect,” he wrote on Twitter. “They are coming to a port of entry and requesting refugee status. That is legal.”

In an interview, Mr. Darby said it was regrettable that the relatively routine occurrence of migrant caravans — which organizers rely on as a safety-in-numbers precaution against the violence that can happen along the trek — was being politicized. “The caravan isn’t something that’s a unique event,” he said. “And I think people are looking at it wrong. If you’re upset at the situation, it’s easier to be mad at the migrant than it is to be mad at the political leaders on both sides who won’t change the laws.”

As tends to be the case in these stories, the humanitarian aspects get glossed over as migrants are collapsed into one maligned category: hostile foreign invaders.

In November, Mr. Trump touched off an international furor when he posted a series of videos on Twitter that purported to show the effects of mass Muslim migration in Europe. Initially circulated by a fringe ultranationalist in Britain who has railed against Islam, the videos included titles like “Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!” “Muslim Destroys a Statue of Virgin Mary!” and “Islamist mob pushes teenage boy off roof and beats him to death!”

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Migrants traveling through Mexico at a stop on Wednesday in Matías Romero, in Oaxaca State. The story of “the caravan” followed a narrative involving refugees and migrants that have roused intense suspicion and outrage on the right.

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Felix Marquez/Associated Press

The assailant in one video the president shared, however, was not a “Muslim migrant.” And the other two videos depicted four-year-old events with no explanation.

These items tend to metastasize irrespective of the facts, but contain powerful visual elements to which Mr. Trump is known to viscerally respond.

Last February, Mr. Trump insinuated that some kind of terror-related episode involving Muslim immigrants had taken place in Sweden. “Who would believe this? Sweden,” he said at a rally in Florida, leaving Swedes and Americans baffled because nothing out of the ordinary had happened at all. “They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible.”

Like the caravan story, which apparently came to Mr. Trump’s attention as he watched “Fox & Friends,” the president was referring to something he had seen on cable news. And he later had to clarify that he was referring to a Fox News segment on issues Sweden was having with migrants generally, not any particular event.

The conservative National Review later called the piece in question “sensationalistic” and pointed out that a lack of government data made it virtually impossible to determine whether crime rates in the country were related to immigration.

When the president himself has not spread stories about immigration that were either misleading or turned out to be false, his White House aides have. Last year, the White House joined a pile-on by the conservative news media after it called attention to the account of a high school student in Montgomery County, Md., who said she was raped at school by two classmates, one of whom is an undocumented immigrant. The case became a national rallying cry on the right against permissive border policies and so-called sanctuary cities that treat undocumented immigrants more leniently. Fox News broadcast live outside the high school for days.

Prosecutors later dropped the charges after they said the evidence did not substantiate the girl’s claims.

The story of the caravan has been similarly exaggerated. And the emotional outpouring from the right has been raw — that was the case on Fox this week when the TV host Tucker Carlson shouted “You hate America!” at an immigrants rights activist after he defended the people marching through Mexico.

The facts of the caravan are not as straightforward as Mr. Trump or many conservative pundits have portrayed them. The story initially gained widespread attention after BuzzFeed News reported last week that more than 1,000 Central American migrants, mostly from Honduras, were making their way north toward the United States border. Yet the BuzzFeed article and other coverage pointed out that many in the group were planning to stay in Mexico.

That did not stop Mr. Trump from expressing dismay on Tuesday with a situation “where you have thousands of people that decide to just walk into our country, and we don’t have any laws that can protect it.”

The use of disinformation in immigration debates is hardly unique to the United States. Misleading crime statistics, speculation about sinister plots to undermine national sovereignty and Russian propaganda have all played a role in stirring up anti-immigrant sentiment in places like Britain, Germany and Hungary. Some of the more fantastical theories have involved a socialist conspiracy to import left-leaning voters and a scheme by the Hungarian-born Jewish philanthropist George Soros to create a borderless Europe.

Anyone watching Fox News this week would have heard about similar forces at work inside “the caravan.”

“This was an organized plan and deliberate attack on the sovereignty of the United States by a special interest group,” said David Ward, whom the network identified as a former agent for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “They rallied a bunch of foreign nationals to come north into the United States to test our resolve.”

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