On December 3, just weeks after being elected President of the United States, Donald Trump escaped the barrage of Cabinet interviews to pay his respects to a family of incredibly wealthy, barely known kingmakers-a family that helped Trump clinch one of the biggest presidential upsets in history.
It was one of his first public outings since the election, a lavish costume party held in Head of the Harbor, a tiny Long Island village with a population of just over 1,000. No press was allowed inside, but they lined the driveway, where black town cars dropped off guests to the "Heroes and Villains"-themed fete. When Trump surprised the crowd, stepping out of an SUV for an unannounced appearance, camera lights popped and the pool reporters shouted, "Who are you going as?"
Wearing his usual look of a boxy suit and printed tie, he mouthed: "Me."
Honoring the ultimate hero at the Mercer "Heroes and Villians" party on Long Island. Crowd thrilled w/ surprise! pic.twitter.com/VQAyaKvs6i- Kellyanne Conway (@KellyannePolls) December 4, 2016
The party wasn't hosted by any of his high-profile supporters like the Lefraks or Woody Johnson-or even one of his C-list celebrity cheerleaders, like Scott Baio. The party was put on by a Trump transition executive named Rebekah Mercer and her father, Robert Mercer.
Trump didn't stay at the event long; by midnight he was home watching Saturday Night Live and tweeting critiques about Alec Baldwin's portrayal of him. But it's no wonder Trump stopped in to pay respects to the Mercers. You may not know her name, but Rebekah, a mysterious heiress turned bakery owner turned political player, was quietly pulling strings for the Trump campaign for most of 2016-and has quickly become one of the most influential figures in American politics.
Nobody in the Mercer family has ever spoken publicly about their political motivations or involvement. (Rebekah has never been interviewed on the record and, for this article, multiple inquiries to her spokesperson were unanswered. Robert told the Wall Street Journal in 2010, "I'm happy going through my life without saying anything to anybody.") And those close to the family refuse to reveal personal details about them. But the family's immense political power is indisputable.
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Robert has spent at least $32 million supporting conservative candidates for office, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. And the Center for Responsive Politics points out that he was one of the largest donors in the 2016 Republican race.
Though he's not shy about throwing his weight behind conservative causes, Robert prefers to remain in the background. According to a recent Wall Street Journal profile, the hedge fund titan once told a colleague he preferred the company of cats to humans. So, it's his more sociable middle daughter who has become the face of the family, meeting with power players and initiating deals. She sits on boards of conservative foundations he funds, including the Heritage Foundation, and has reportedly been seen walking arm-and-arm with him at events he funds like the Jackson Hole Summit, a conference promoting the gold standard. Politico just put her as 21 on their PlayBook Power List.
By Rebekah's most public-and influential-role so far is as an executive on Trump's 16-person transition executive committee, which advises the president-elect on Cabinet appointments and organizing his White House.
A cookie shop for presidents
A decade ago, Rebekah was selling cookies. In 2006, one of her favorite New York bakeries, the tiny Ruby et Violette in Hell's Kitchen, was shutting down, so she and her sisters jumped in to rescue it.
"It was our favorite place for cookies," Heather Sue, an avid poker player, told Fox News. "We'd get them for parties, weddings, christenings. We'd make up reasons to get them. Then one night, I'm playing poker at the Borgata and I get a call that Ruby et Violette is closing." She said she called her sisters declaring: "We're going to buy a bakery."
This would be no ordinary bakery. The company no longer maintains a storefront; now based in Queens, according to its LinkedIn page, it delivers-and counts Bill Clinton and George W. Bush among its fans. In fact, both former presidents sent personal thank you letters, posted on the bakery's website. "Dear Jenji, Bekah, and Heather Sure: Laura and I were delighted to receive your cookies," starts the hand-signed note from Bush. "Thank you for all the delicious gourmet cookies - they were gone fast! You were kind to send them, and I appreciate your thoughtfulness," reads the Clinton letter. According to Bloomberg, billionaire conservative activists Charles and David Koch's Virginia-based nonprofit Freedom Brothers also caters events with their cookies.
It's no wonder politicians fawn over the treats. With pockets as deep as the Mercers, it doesn't hurt to try to curry favor however you can.
The Mercers weren't always this rich. Rebekah, known as Bekah to friends, grew up in Yorktown, Westchester, with older sister Jenji and younger sibling Heather Sue. At the time, Robert worked at IBM.
"Rebekah is not a Marie Antoinette," Amity Shlaes, a member of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation board, which gets Mercer funding, told The Washington Post. "Her father was a research scientist at IBM. Her family did well late. She understands what it means to make economic decisions."
Rebekah is not a Marie Antoinette. She understands what it means to make economic decisions.
The big Mercer money came when Robert began working for the ultra-mysterious Renaissance Technologies hedge fund on Long Island in 1993. In 2009, Robert became the co-CEO of Renaissance, which author Sebastian Mallaby called "perhaps the most successful hedge fund ever" in his 2011 book More Money Than God.
Robert and his wife Diana moved into an extravagant Long Island mansion, which they dubbed "Owl's Nest," closer to the Renaissance offices. The home is so palatial, the family created Owl's Nest Inc., a company used to manage household staff. In 2013, the service staff sued Robert for allegedly penalizing them for doing things like failing to close a door or not refilling the shampoo. The case was dismissed a few months later and appears to have been quietly settled.
While her father climbed the ranks at Renaissance, Rebekah attended Stanford University from 1994 to1997, studying biology, mathematics and operations research, according to her LinkedIn page. (Though her degrees come from Stanford, she also lists four years spent at Cornell from 1991 to 1994.)
At Stanford, Rebekah met her future husband, French-born Sylvain Mirochnikoff, according to The Washington Post. Mirochnikoff has gone on to become a managing director at Morgan Stanley. Rebekah flirted with finance as well, working a short stint on Wall Street after Stanford, according to reports.
The couple went on to have four children, and it's been reported that today Rebekah homeschools them. But Rebekah and her husband have donated to a foundation for Manhattan's elite Dwight School, as indicated by the organization's annual reports. And in a 2012 newsletter for the bilingual Ecole Internationale de New York, Rebekah praised the school, saying:
"My husband is French, and his entire family lives in Paris. Our children require fluency in French so that they can understand their heritage and converse with their relatives … We couldn't ask for a better school for our children."
Rebekah and Mirochnikoff's paper trail of donations and real estate give a peek into their intensely private Manhattan life. The pair donates regularly to the Frick Collection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Morgan Library, and the Central Park Conservancy. They've even made gifts to GLAAD, according to the organization's annual reports.
Still, while they were making a name for themselves in donor circles, the Mercers managed to stay unknown to the general public for years. In 2015, they began making headlines when they connected with then-Texas Senator Ted Cruz. A Page Six article highlights a party at Rebekah and Mirochnikoff's $28 million apartment in the 41-story Heritage at Trump Place on the Upper West Side (they bought six apartments and combined them, according to public records). The event was in honor of Cruz, whose defeat in the 2016 Republican primaries would lead them straight to Trump.
Bringing Steve Bannon Into the Fold
Until 2006, Rebekah was registered as an independent. Since becoming a Republican, she has, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, supported a wide range of conservative politicians, from Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton and junior Nebraska Ben Sasse to businesspeople-turned-presidential candidates Carly Fiorina and Herman Cain.
Pinning down the Mercers's specific political motivations is tricky. Robert and Rebekah have directed money to anti-abortion groups and a Christian college, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, which also reports the father and daughter "don't talk about religion."
They secretly funded ads for a research chemist named Arthur Robinson during his run for Congress in Oregon. Robinson believes climate change is a hoax, thinks nuclear radiation could be good for you, and insists he can extend the human life span by studying human urine. Robinson told the Bloomberg Businessweek that political ads supporting him just began popping up-he had no idea who was behind them until a third party revealed it was Robert.
Rebekah sits on the boards of Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think tank, the Goldwater Institute, a conservative and libertarian public policy think tank, and Reclaim New York, a nonprofit focused on transparency and the city's affordability. (Heritage and Goldwater representatives didn't respond to requests for comment about her work.)
"Rebekah Mercer's vision for Reclaim is that it will educate New Yorkers and prepare them to demand a more affordable, ethical, responsive and effective government," a Reclaim spokesman told Town & Country. "Ms. Mercer believes that increasing citizen engagement on issues impacting their families and their businesses will pressure politicians to enact vital reforms."
Rebekah founded Reclaim New York with a familiar name: Trump's controversial chief strategist Steve Bannon. In 2011, the Mercers invested $10 million to the then-relatively unknown website Breitbart, according to Bloomberg Politics. After the site's founder Andrew Breitbart died in 2012, Bannon took the reigns.
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Bannon, who describes himself as an "economic nationalist," shares with the Mercers an apparent desire to shake up the Republican establishment. Breitbart isn't the Mercers' only connection to Bannon. Rebekah was also reportedly a director for his Government Accountability Institute, which funded research for the books Clinton Cash and Bush Bucks.
After years of spreading their funds around, the Mercers went all-in last year for conservative candidate Ted Cruz, putting millions towards a Super PAC to support his run for the presidency. "Keep the Promise," which was run by pollster Kellyanne Conway, was rebranded as the "Defeat Crooked Hillary PAC" after Cruz dropped out of the race in May 2016.
Just weeks after Cruz left the race, Rebekah and Conway were invited to Trump Tower to have a lunch of salads and sandwiches with Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, according to The Washington Post.
"Ivanka and Rebekah bonded over parenting young children and being the daughters of hard-charging, successful fathers, according to people familiar with their conversation," wrote Post reporter Matea Gold. "Rebekah's sister Jenji and her mother were already fans of the real estate developer, according to a friend. And now Rebekah was on board: The family would help Trump."
Her influence was swift. It was Rebekah who convinced Trump to appoint family allies Conway and Bannon as co-campaign chairs in a surprising staff shakeup last summer, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Though we didn't see them making the cable news show rounds or taking the stage in Cleveland at the Republican National Convention, the Mercers' fingerprints are all over Trump's win and subsequent transition.
What role, if any, will Mercer play in a Trump administration?
Since signing on to Team Trump, the Mercers have remained fervent in their support - even through the worst of the campaign scandals. When a tape was released of the Republican candidate telling Access Hollywood host Billy Bush that he used his fame to "grab [women] by the pussy," the Mercers released a rare statement reiterating their conviction.
"If Mr. Trump had told Billy Bush, whoever that is, earlier this year that he was for open borders, open trade, and executive actions in pursuit of gun control, we would certainly be rethinking our support for him," reads the statement to The Washington Post. "We are completely indifferent to Mr. Trump's locker room braggadocio."
We are completely indifferent to Mr. Trump's locker room braggadocio.
After that fiasco, research firm Cambridge Analytica was one of the very few that remained confident that Trump would still win the election. Robert is reportedly a major backer of the relatively unknown strategic communications company, which also worked with Leave.EU in the U.K. ahead of the Brexit vote.
So, while many may have been shocked when Trump clinched the Electoral College late November 8, the Mercers surely felt vindicated.
One of Trump's first actions as president-elect was to name Mercer associate Bannon as chief strategist, sparking outrage from the Anti-Defamation League as well as politicians on both side of the aisle because of his work with Breitbart, which Bannon himself told Mother Jones was a "platform for the alt-right," an online movement with white supremacist views.
Rebekah also played a part in lobbying against Mitt Romney as Secretary of State and in favor of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as attorney general, according to The Wall Street Journal. Sessions is popular in his home state, holding elected office for two decades, but his appointment has faced backlash due to his civil rights record and accusations of racism.
Although she's clearly a voice Trump trusts, it doesn't appear Rebekah will play a formal role in his administration. It's more likely she'll help from the outside, serving a leadership role in an organization supporting his agenda, likely a super PAC or nonprofit, according to The Wall Street Journal.
While we may never hear directly from Rebekah or her father, it seems they're just getting started. Trump told The Wall Street Journal: "The Mercers are incredible people who truly love this country and go all out to protect America and everything it stands for."
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