Shrugging Off Trump Scandals, Evangelicals Look to Rescue G.O.P.


But Christian conservatives say Mr. Trump has also more than honored his end of the bargain that brought reluctant members of their ranks along during his presidential campaign. He has begun the process of moving the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, won the confirmation of numerous judges and a Supreme Court Justice who seem likely to advance their anti-abortion cause, moved against transgender protections throughout the government, increased the ability of churches to organize politically and personally supported the March for Life.

“I don’t know of anyone who has worked the evangelical community more effectively than Donald Trump,” said Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which this year plans to devote four times the money it spent in the 2014 midterms.

In essence, many evangelical leaders have decided that airing moral qualms about the president only hurts their cause.

“His family can talk to him about issues of character,” said Penny Young Nance, the president of Concerned Women for America, an evangelical organization that is framing the midterm elections to potential donors as a civilizational struggle.

So far, the decision by most conservative evangelical leaders to double down on their support for Mr. Trump is playing out like most of the other moments when skeptics of the president believed he had finally undermined himself with his base.

A poll released last week by the Public Religion Research Institute found white evangelical approval for Mr. Trump at its highest level ever: 75 percent. Only 22 percent said they had an unfavorable view of the president.

Much as in the 2016 presidential campaign, Christian conservative events are designed to be highly visible and to convey the movement as one united voice. Hundreds of evangelical leaders plan to gather in June at the Trump International Hotel in Washington for a conspicuous show of support for Mr. Trump. The event will be part pep rally, part strategy session.

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Penny Young Nance, center, is president of Concerned Women for America, an evangelical organization that is framing the midterm elections to potential donors as a civilizational struggle.

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Evan Vucci/Associated Press

Paula White, a pastor for Mr. Trump for more than 16 years, has facilitated events for conservative evangelicals to meet senior White House officials, including a gathering for women and another for pastors of megachurches in recent weeks.

“Let’s pray there’s not apathy,” Ms. White said.

In the states, leading religious and socially conservative groups will be propped up by the Republican National Committee, which will encourage voter registration at churches and schedule round tables with local pastors and evangelical liaisons close to the president.

Some of the organizers call themselves “the watchmen on the wall,” a reference to guards who looked over Jerusalem from the Book of Isaiah.

The message to energize Christian conservatives has twin purposes: to inspire them to celebrate their victories and to stoke enough grievance to prod them to vote.

But in a midterm election, no singular political enemy will emerge the way Hillary Clinton did in 2016. Instead, leaders of the movement plan to lean hard into a message that fans fears and grudges: that the progressive movement and national media mock Christian life and threaten everything religious conservatives have achieved in the 15 months of the Trump administration.

“Show the left that you can put labels on us, you can shame us. But we’re not giving up,” said Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, who explained that many conservatives of faith see attacks on Mr. Trump as an attack on their judgment.

The Family Research Council has already activated its network of 15,000 churches, half of which have “culture impact ministries” that organize congregations to be more socially and civically engaged. The group’s efforts will gear up with voter registration drives around the Fourth of July and voter education that will focus on a half-dozen states that could determine control of the Senate.

Their tactics are almost identical to the work they used during the presidential campaign to unite a fractured evangelical base. The June meeting in Washington is a follow-up to a gathering in New York in the summer of 2016 that soothed tensions after it became apparent that Mr. Trump would be the Republican nominee.

Leaders of the Christian right have not only largely accepted Mr. Trump’s flaws and moved on; they seem to almost dare the president’s opponents to throw more at him. Ms. Nance said she heard a common sentiment from volunteers and supporters who did not seem bothered by the allegations of Mr. Trump’s infidelity. “We weren’t looking for a husband,” she said. “We were looking for a body guard.”

Concerned Women for America’s fund-raising pitch claims, “This is our Esther moment,” referring to the biblical heroine whose resourcefulness saved Persia’s Jews from annihilation hundreds of years before Jesus. The group plans to have get-out-the-vote organizers in 10 states where Democrats are defending Senate seats in states where Mr. Trump won.

Mike Mears, the Republican National Committee’s director of strategic partnerships and faith engagement, described the midterm campaign as “a call to arms.”

“You like what the president is doing?” he asked. “We need your help.”

The danger for Republicans is the many evangelicals who do not like what the president is doing. His petty insults, coarse language, lack of humility and private life are difficult to square with Christian faith, opponents say. The president has helped devalue character, morality and fidelity as essential qualities in political leaders, they say.

A meeting of evangelical leaders in Illinois last week featured a frank and candid discussion of the president’s failings, prompting some pro-Trump attendees to walk out.

But for evangelicals loyal to Mr. Trump, the criticism is irrelevant. They say that as challenging as the political realities may be, they remain hopeful that voters understand what is at stake. “We are living in unusual times,” said Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University and one of Mr. Trump’s earliest evangelical supporters. “And after what happened in 2016, I think anything is possible.”

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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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Trump’s New Judicial Litmus Test: Shrinking ‘the Administrative State’


But under Mr. Trump, he described a “coherent plan” to pair the administration’s deregulation orders with judicial nominees who find the accumulation of power in the federal bureaucracy alarming. “It’s kind of its own branch of government now, and those decisions tend to trend to the left.”

This approach has shaped what could be one of Mr. Trump’s most enduring legacies, with the potential to dramatically shrink the body of federal regulations and programs that touch almost every aspect of American life — like workplace safety, environmental protection and health care.

If it is successful, the Trump administration could come closer than any Republican White House has to achieving a goal conservatives have longed for since the New Deal: curtailing the reach of a federal government they say has grown far too large and invasive.

“It’s the next step in the national debate about the proper role of the courts,” said Leonard Leo, a prominent conservative lawyer who is advising the administration on its judicial picks. “The administrative state is 75 years old,” Mr. Leo continued. “It’s become a huge, glaring issue.”

Weeding out judicial candidates based on an ideological checklist is something Democratic and Republican presidents have long done. But it is rare for a White House to be so open about what it considers disqualifying.

“In the past, presidents and their White House counsels generally don’t make this kind of pronouncement about their agenda,” said Nan Aron, the president of the Alliance for Justice, a liberal judicial advocacy group. “That’s what’s unusual about it.”

That the concept of “the administrative state” has become so central to politics today shows how successful the Trump administration has been in elevating to the mainstream ideas that once thrived mainly on the edges of conservative and libertarian thought.

A year ago it was a term known mostly among academics to describe the vast array of federal departments and the unelected functionaries who run them. It entered the mainstream political lexicon last year after the president’s former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, pledged a “deconstruction of the administrative state” under Mr. Trump.

But many conservatives now believe that a strategy centered on the administrative state creates the potential to leave a more lasting impact on the law than focusing on social issues.

“That’s actually an important shift,” said Josh Blackman, an associate professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston. “Gay marriage, I think that issue is more or less settled. The court’s not going to overturn Roe. They’re just not. So let’s go somewhere you can put some points on the board.”

Judges who take a skeptical view of the authority vested in executive agencies are also probably more inclined to limit liberal social policies that are enforced by the government in everything from nondiscrimination to voting rights. So social conservative groups have expressed nothing but delight with Mr. Trump’s nominees.

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Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, is the chief architect of the administration’s selection process for judicial nominees.

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Doug Mills/The New York Times

But Democrats warn that Mr. Trump’s judicial picks are putting at risk the regulatory and social safety net that Americans need and have come to expect from their government. Conservatives have long sought to achieve this, said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut. But rarely, he said, have they been so bold about it.

“Trump is really giving practical effect to a theoretical construct — let’s cut administrative power, let’s shut down the deep state,” Mr. Blumenthal said. These ideas, he added, have been around for a while, “but have never been weaponized in the way that Trump is doing now with his judicial nominees.”

The model jurist Mr. McGahn and others have held up is Justice Gorsuch, who replaced Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.

As an appellate judge, Justice Gorsuch was admired in conservative circles for being one of the most articulate advocates of reconsidering a legal doctrine known as “Chevron deference,” named after a 1984 Supreme Court decision involving the oil company.

In its decision, the court said judges must defer to reasonable interpretations of ambiguous statutes by federal agencies on the theory that agencies have more expertise than judges and are more accountable to voters.

“Judges are not experts in the field and are not part of either political branch of the government,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his majority opinion.

In a vetting interview with some of Mr. Trump’s senior aides during the transition, Judge Gorsuch answered a question about the 2015 decision that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide with a terse reply — “settled law,” he said, according to one person present. But he and Mr. McGahn went on to discuss Chevron deference at length.

In one of his most famous opinions as an appeals court judge, Justice Gorsuch wrote that Chevron allowed “executive bureaucracies to swallow huge amounts of core judicial and legislative power.”

He has taken that view with him to the Supreme Court, where he has already tried to persuade his new colleagues to revisit the Chevron question. Legal experts took notice last week when he joined Justice Clarence Thomas in a dissent critical of the court for not taking a case involving a dispute between a construction company and the Army. Justice Thomas wrote, “This court has passed up another opportunity to remedy” the accumulation of power in the federal agencies.

Many of the appeals court judges Mr. Trump has picked take a view of administrative law similar to that of Justice Gorsuch. And some have found their way onto Mr. Trump’s Supreme Court shortlist, like Brett M. Kavanaugh, a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and Don R. Willett, who was recently confirmed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans and has come under attack from liberal groups.

One of Mr. McGahn’s former White House deputies, Gregory Katsas, is now a judge for the District of Columbia Circuit, which is generally considered second only to the Supreme Court in importance.

Tellingly, one person who likely would have not made the cut under the Trump administration’s guidelines is Justice Scalia, who for most of his career embraced the Chevron deference doctrine.

But this thinking has been advanced by many libertarian-minded conservatives who have long doubted whether the founders envisioned the creation of many New Deal and Great Society programs and the abundance of regulations that flowed from them.

“A lot of this, if you unpack it, I think it will get back to fundamental fairness,” said Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries, which is led by Charles G. and David H. Koch, two of the biggest financial backers of the effort to elect office holders committed to deregulation and free-market enterprise.

The Trump judicial selection process, Mr. Holden added, was ultimately focused on “the size and scope of government and scaling it back, to the extent that it’s counterproductive and contrary to due process.”

Not all conservatives are united on this question. And some see the effort to use the courts to undertake what is effectively a mission to decentralize decision-making authority as the definition of judicial activism.

“This is not conservative,” said Gordon Lloyd, a professor emeritus of public policy at Pepperdine University. “This is Lenin dismantling the institutions.”

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