Robert “Bob” Mercer, the billionaire who’s been a major Trump supporter and donor to right-wing causes (as well as a financial backer of the far-right-wing media outlet Breitbart and early supporter of Milo Yiannopoulos), announced on Nov. 2 that he would be stepping down as head of the Renaissance Technologies hedge fund. He also said he would sell his share of Breitbart, and that his earlier support of Yiannopoulos was a mistake. Here’s five things to know:
1. He Announced His Decision in a Mass Letter to Hedge Fund Staff
In a Nov. 2 letter to Renaissance staff (with the subject heading “Past, present and future”), Mercer said he would step down from his position as co-CEO and resign from Renaissance’s board of directors effective January 1. (Or, as he put it in his letter, “I do not plan to retire, but I do plan to relinquish my management responsibilities.”
The letter also mentions that “for personal reasons,” Mercer would sell his stake in Breitbart News to his daughters.
According to Bloomberg, Renaissance manages more than $50 billion in assets. The “notoriously secretive firm,” as Bloomberg described them, presumably did not enjoy being thrust into the national spotlight after Mercer and his daughter Rebekah became known for their patronage of Breitbart and Steve Bannon, Breitbart’s former editor (and former presidential adviser) who famously said he’d wanted to make Breitbart a “platform” for the alt-right.
Mercer started working for Renaissance in 1993. Before that, he was a language technology expert at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center.
2. He’s Offended by ‘Mischaracterizations’ Portraying Him as a White Supremacist
Mercer’s letter to Renaissance staff does not mention his resignation until it tenth and final paragraph. The bulk of the letter is dedicated to “correct[ing] some of the misinformation that
has been published about me,” as mentioned in his introductory paragraph.
After a couple paragraphs discussing his belief in the importance of a society founded on individual freedom protected by a small and limited government, Mercer’s letter goes on to say that such a society “has no place for discrimination,” and that “Of the many mischaracterizations made of me by the press, the most repugnant to me have been the intimations that I am a white supremacist or a member of some other noxious group. Discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, creed, or anything of that sort is abhorrent to me. But more than that, it is ignorant.”
He also decried the suggestion that “my politics marches in lockstep with Steve Bannon’s.”
Mercer also said his earlier support of Milo Yiannopoulos was motivated by a desire to preserve freedom to disagree with the mainstream, though certain later actions and statements by Yiannopoulos made Mercer reconsider:
Without individuals thinking for themselves, society as a whole will struggle to distinguish the signal of truth from the correlated noise of conformity. I supported Milo Yiannopoulos in the hope and expectation that his expression of views contrary to the social mainstream and his spotlighting of the hypocrisy of those who would close down free speech in the name of political correctness would promote the type of open debate and freedom of thought that is being throttled on many American college campuses today. But in my opinion, actions of and statements by Mr. Yiannopoulos have caused pain and divisiveness undermining the open and productive discourse that I had hoped to facilitate.
I was mistaken to have supported him, and for several weeks have been in the process of severing all ties with him.
Mercer also said that he has “great respect” for Steve Bannon but his political opinions “do not always align with Mr. Bannon’s.”
3. His Decision Might Have Been Prompted by Exposés of Breitbart and its White Nationalist Ties
Bloomberg reporter Joshua Green, who introduced Mercer’s resignation letter to the public, also wrote the book Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency, first published last July.
Among other things, the book says that in 2012, Robert Mercer gave Breitbart $10 million in capital. Mercer’s daughter Rebekah (now slated to be a Breitbart co-owner after buying her father’s stake in the company), also was instrumental in bringing Steve Bannon and his far-right ethno-nationalist polices into Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Even more recently, in early October, BuzzFeed reporter Joseph Bernstein ran an expose detailing “how Breitbart and Milo smuggled Nazi and white nationalist ideas into the mainstream.” Robert Mercer and his daugher Rebekah are both shown actively engaging with Bannon, Yiannopoulos and other then-current Breitbart writers.
After the far-right-wing tiki-torch rally in Charlottesville last August, Steve Bannon claimed “there’s no room in American society” for groups such as neo-Nazis or neo-Confederates, but Breitbart internal documents uncovered by BuzzFeed indicate that “there was plenty of room for those voices” on Breitbart under Bannon.
4. The IRS Says Mercer’s Hedge Fund Owes $7 Billion in Back Taxes
In May 2017, McClatchy reported that the IRS was demanding at least $7 billion in back taxes from Renaissance Technologies. McClatchy also noted that the Mercer family’s political activism became far more frequent after that.
Business Insider included more details: in July 2014, a Senate inquiry discovered that Renaissance, in its dealings with Barclays and Deutchse Bank, had allegedly attempted to transform short-term trades into long-term ones (because long-term trades are taxed at a lower rate). As a result, Renaissance saved $6.8 billion in taxes between 1999 and 2014.
As Business Insider noted, in its April 2017 article headlined “The Trump administration may have to decide whether to press one of his biggest backers on a contested $6.8 billion tax bill,” the IRS has continued seeking those taxes from Renaissance, and Renaissance maintained that it has “cooperated fully” with the IRS.
5. He Had Donated Tens of Millions of Dollars to Republican Candidates Through the Years
In December 2016, Newsweek reported that Robert Mercer had been contributing to federal political committees since 1998, and had given $36.8 million to super PACs since 2010.
During the early days of the 2016 presidential election, before he jumped onto the Trump train, Mercer supported Ted Cruz donating a total of $11 million to Cruz’ campaign. A January 2016 Bloomberg piece asking “What Kind of Man Spends Millions to Elect Ted Cruz?” described other candidates Mercer has supported:
In 2010, Arthur Robinson, a research chemist, decided to run for Congress in southern Oregon. Robinson, now 73, was not your average candidate. In a lab on a sheep ranch in the Siskiyou Mountains, he’s spent the last couple of years collecting thousands of vials of human urine. Funded by private donors, he claims his work holds the key to extending the human life span and wresting control of medicine from what he calls the “medical-industrial-government complex.” He has some unusual ideas. According to his monthly newsletter, nuclear radiation can be good for you and climate science is a hoax. In his spare time, he buys unwanted pipe organs from churches and reassembles them on his property.
Robinson was new to politics and had little money of his own. The Democratic incumbent, Peter DeFazio, had held office for more than 20 years and easily outspent him. But six weeks before the election, a barrage of ads hit the airwaves, portraying DeFazio as a puppet of the Democratic leadership. Robinson lost, but the $600,000 in ads helped him turn in the best performance by a Republican in the district in decades.
Though Robinson says he initially did not know who paid for those political ads, he eventually discovered the “Washington operatives” who paid for them worked for Mercer.