- Jane Mayerstaff writer at The New Yorker. Her latest piece is headlined “The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency: How Robert Mercer exploited America’s populist insurgency.”
Years before backing Donald Trump, the Mercers helped support the congressional campaign of Arthur Robinson, who attempted to oust Rep. Peter DeFazio. Robinson made for an unusual candidate. He is a climate change denier who speaks about the positive effects of nuclear radiation. Robinson runs the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, which stores some 14,000 samples of human urine. Robinson has said he is trying to find new ways of extending the human lifespan. The Mercers funded Robinson’s campaign and institute. The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reports the Mercers also pushed to have Trump name Robinson as his science adviser. Jane Mayer writes about Robinson in her new piece, “The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency: How Robert Mercer exploited America’s populist insurgency.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We continue our conversation with Jane Mayer, staff writer at The New Yorker. Her latest piece is headlined “The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency: How Robert Mercer exploited America’s populist insurgency.” The piece looks at how the secretive billionaire reshaped the political landscape. But Robert Mercer is hardly a household name. He never talks to the press and rarely speaks at a public event.
AMY GOODMAN: But Robert Mercer did speak in 2014, when he accepted a lifetime achievement award from the Association of Computational Language. He told a story of working at New Mexico’s Kirtland Air Force Weapons Lab.
ROBERT MERCER: … its possession a program for computing these fields, but for whatever reason, they were not in possession of the programmer who had created it. It took hundreds of hours of CPU time to make a single run of this program, and my boss at the lab gave me the job of figuring out how it worked and making it run faster. The style of the original program was very unpleasant, so the first thing I did was rewrite the whole thing. And after a while, I had a new program that produced the same answers as the old one, but about a hundred times faster. And then a strange thing happened. Instead of running the old computations in 1/100th of the time, the powers that be at the lab ran computations that were a hundred times bigger. I took this as an indication that one of the most important goals of government-financed research is not so much to get answers as it is to consume the computer budget, which has left me ever since with a jaundiced view of government-financed research.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that is one of the few times Robert Mercer has spoken publicly. In fact, Jane Mayer, you talk about, at the heroes-and-villains ball after Donald Trump was elected, he said he had his longest conversation with Robert—with Robert Mercer, and he had uttered two words, he said. But—so he has this view of the government. He moves over to Renaissance Technologies in Setauket, Long Island, out near Stony Brook University. Talk about how you did learn more about his views—you mentioned the man earlier, David Magerman, one of the people he worked with at Renaissance, who broke with him; so often that’s how you can learn about people’s views within an organization, when you have a break, a major rift like this—and Magerman’s view of what the Mercers represent.
JANE MAYER: Well, I mean, it’s very unusual, what happened with this man, David Magerman. He is a senior employee at Renaissance Technologies, this wildly lucrative hedge fund. And he spoke out about Mercer’s views. I mean, the thing is, this hedge fund is very secretive. It has its own sort of secret sauce about how to make money. Nobody there talks. They’re all also getting so rich. There’s a lot to lose by alienating the people who run the firm. And so, it was very unusual that Magerman came forward.
But what happened was, he is involved in Jewish politics, Jewish causes in Philadelphia. And he became very concerned about the Mercers’ role in the campaign and the sort of the promotion of the “alt-right,” which has these anti-Semitic strains to it, and got into a conversation with Bob Mercer that devolved into an argument about politics. And at some point, Magerman said to his boss, Bob Mercer, you know, “You are using money that I helped earn for this firm to do these things. And if you’re harming America, you have to stop.” And he spoke to colleagues about it, and Mercer called him and said, “I understand you’re saying I am a white supremacist.” And Mercer said, “That’s ridiculous.” And Magerman said, “Well, I didn’t use those words exactly, but, you know, you’ve got to stop doing this.” Eventually, this fight got written up in The Wall Street Journal. Magerman spoke to The Wall Street Journal. And when that happened, when it went public, the firm suspended Magerman for 30 days from his job without pay, and—which God knows how much that would be.
And at that point, Magerman didn’t back down. He wrote an essay himself about how he saw things. And what he wrote is really very eloquent, I thought, which is that he says about his boss, Mercer, “He’s making an investment. He’s buying shares in this candidate, Trump. And now that Trump’s been elected, he owns a piece of him. He owns a share of the presidency.” And he said, you know, “Everybody’s got a right to express their own political views, but it’s a real worry when the government of the United States is being set up to reflect—is being peopled by Mercer’s people, who are running our government, and it feels more like an oligarchy than a democracy.” So, anyway, Magerman was one of the people who actually opened the—allowed one to get a glimpse of what it is that Mercer believes.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to ask about someone who’s strongly influenced the views of Robert Mercer, Arthur Robinson, who is also the person that Mercer intervened on behalf of when he was running for Oregon’s governor. Now, in your piece, you talk about the influence that he’s had on Robert Mercer, especially on climate change and nuclear radiation. Robinson runs the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, which stores some 14,000 samples of human urine. Robinson has said he’s trying to find new ways of extending the human lifespan. In 2010, Mercers bankrolled Robinson’s run for a congressional seat in Oregon against Pete DeFazio. During the race, Arthur Robinson was interviewed by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.
RACHEL MADDOW: You’re well known for your belief that global warming is made up, that that is not true. That’s sort of the source of your national reputation, to the extent that you have one. Your opponent, Mr. DeFazio, is also—
ARTHUR ROBINSON: That’s not a belief. That’s a conclusion I reached as a physical scientist. I have a degree from Caltech.
RACHEL MADDOW: Right.
ARTHUR ROBINSON: Many other men who have degrees from Caltech have agreed with me on this.
RACHEL MADDOW: OK.
ARTHUR ROBINSON: We have—there are thousands of physical scientists in this country who, on the basis of scientific information alone, reject the idea of human-caused global warming.
RACHEL MADDOW: You have advocated that radioactive—
ARTHUR ROBINSON: You can go right ahead. You’ve already—you’ve already put a big pejorative statement before the statement. But go ahead. Ask anything you like.
RACHEL MADDOW: You have advocated that radioactive waste should be dissolved in water and, quote, “widely dispersed in the oceans.” Quote, “All we need to do with nuclear waste is dilute it to a low radiation level and sprinkle it over the ocean—or even over America after hormesis is better understood and verified with respect to more diseases.” Now, hormesis is your belief that low-level radiation is good for us to a certain extent? Is that right?
ARTHUR ROBINSON: The statements that you have just made are untrue.
RACHEL MADDOW: Wait. That was a—I was quoting you.
ARTHUR ROBINSON: What you have done is take tiny excerpts from a vast amount of writing I’ve done on this scientific subject. I have not advocated any of this. As a scientist, I’ve written—
RACHEL MADDOW: I—”All we need to”—did you not say this?
ARTHUR ROBINSON: —about these and many other possibilities.
RACHEL MADDOW: Wait, wait. Are you saying that I—
ARTHUR ROBINSON: You are—
RACHEL MADDOW: Are you saying that your own news—
ARTHUR ROBINSON: You are not telling the truth.
RACHEL MADDOW: Sir, are you saying that your—
ARTHUR ROBINSON: If you want to tell the truth, that’s fine. I’m not going to answer to your lie. That’s just more mud.
RACHEL MADDOW: I’m quoting from your own newsletter.
ARTHUR ROBINSON: This is a complicated scientific subject, which you are misrepresenting to your viewers.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that’s Arthur Robinson speaking to Rachel Maddow, Arthur Robinson who has been an influence on Robert Mercer. And he bankrolled—sorry. He bankrolled this institute and has been pushed to be a science adviser to Trump, this man who believes that nuclear radiation is good for you. So could you say more about him, Robinson?
JANE MAYER: Well, he is an eccentric. He lives on a sheep farm in Oregon. And as he says, he’s a graduate of Caltech. But, you know, if you listen carefully to what he was saying to Rachel Maddow, he’s talking about how “I am a physical scientist, and thus can come to this conclusion about climate change.” He is not a climate scientist. And he put together a petition that was meant to undermine belief in global warming, that had the signatures, he claimed, of zillions of physical scientists. It actually had a lot of, apparently, false signatures. And these scientists, again, were not climate scientists.
The consensus, as I think most people who are fact-based and interested in reality—the consensus we know is that science, overwhelmingly, and particularly climate scientists, overwhelmingly, accept that man-made global warming is causing all kinds of problems and that they are an immediate danger to life on Earth, and it’s something that we need to address.
But you have a few of these sort of holdouts, and Arthur Robinson is one of them. And Mercer is another. And Mercer has helped fund this research by Arthur Robinson and then—and promote it. And the Mercers have talked about, as you mentioned, trying to make Arthur Robinson get chosen as the national science adviser. Trump, too, has taken this position, calling global warming a hoax. It’s a tiny minority view, even in this country. If you look at—The New York Times did a piece this week about belief in global warming. The population understands this isn’t—this isn’t true, this position that these people are taking. But because you’ve got huge money behind it, including Mercer’s, it’s being pushed as the policy of the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk to you about Steve Bannon, continue talking about, since he’s so important, White House chief strategist, who some call “President Bannon,” who—you write about his deep ties to the Mercers, who bankroll Breitbart News and Bannon’s film projects. Let’s turn to comments Bannon made in an interview last month at the CPAC, Conservative Political Action Conference.
STEPHEN BANNON: I think if you look at the lines of work, I kind of break it out into three verticals or three buckets. The first is kind of national security and sovereignty, and that’s your intelligence, the Defense Department, homeland security. The second line of work is what I refer to as economic nationalism. The third, broadly, line of work is what is deconstruction of the administrative state. … If you look at these Cabinet appointees, they were selected for a reason. And that is the deconstruction. The way the progressive left runs is that if they can’t get it passed, they’re just going to put it in some sort of regulation in an agency. That’s all going to be deconstructed. And I think that that’s why this regulatory thing is so important.
AMY GOODMAN: So that’s chief White House strategist Steve Bannon speaking last month. You mention in your piece, Jane, that Robert Mercer’s daughter Rebekah was part of Bannon’s entourage at CPAC. You also suggest Mercers aren’t ideologically aligned with Bannon on some issues. Can you talk about—more about the relationship between Bannon and the Mercers? You—even the possibility that Bannon doesn’t see himself that long in the White House?
JANE MAYER: I’m sorry, I didn’t hear. The possibility that Bannon doesn’t seem what?
AMY GOODMAN: See himself that long in the White House.
JANE MAYER: Ah. Well, from what I’ve been able to figure out, Bannon and Rebekah Mercer are quite close. They’re partners politically, in many ways. She’s the money in the team, and he is the kind of political vision. There are people who know the Mercers, who have worried that their kind of evolution into this tremendous political influence role is the work of Bannon and, to some—that he may have become kind of a Svengali to the whole family. But at any rate, they seem to be working closely together. In the past, they’ve talked a lot, quite frequently. Bannon is a social guest of the Mercer family. They have a tremendous yacht, 203 feet long, that costs $75 million. And he’s, you know, been described by The Wall Street Journal as kind of hanging out on it like a member of the family. And so, they are close. And they’re aligned on many things.
As you mentioned, there are areas of disagreement, particularly between Bob Mercer and Bannon, politically. Bob Mercer is stridently and extremely antigovernment, wants to just, you know, reduce it to a pinhead, according to David Magerman. And Bannon has been talking about an expensive, really expensive, infrastructure program in this country. And so, that would be a point of tension. That would be a government program that Bannon supports and that this family does not. But they are aligned on this idea of deconstructing the administrative state, which sounds like gobbledygook. But what is it really? They’re talking about completely gutting all kinds of government programs and regulations that have to do with things like the environment, that they’ve—just completely undoing the EPA from the inside by putting someone like Scott Pruitt in charge of it, who, basically, doesn’t believe in its mission.
AMY GOODMAN: Who has sued it 14 times—
JANE MAYER: Bannon—right.
AMY GOODMAN: —as Oklahoma attorney general.
JANE MAYER: Right. And so, you know, Bannon—the language is the language of populism. But the enemy, in his view, is government. And so, if you substitute the word “government” for “elites,” when he’s talking about taking on the elites, you end up pretty much in the same place where the Kochs have been all this time, the Koch brothers, who actually worked closely with the Mercers for a few years. They’re undoing the—sort of the government as we know it, which has, you know, the protections for people, for workers, for the environment, for the poor, for the disabled. That’s where—that’s where they’re heading with this.
AMY GOODMAN: Jane, we have to break, but when we come back, we want to ask you about Cambridge Analytica, of the—
JANE MAYER: OK.
AMY GOODMAN: —that the Mercers fund. Does the Trump team have 200 million files on Americans? That’s a question. Also, dark money. That’s the name of your book. And it was a question that was put to Judge Gorsuch, the $10 million campaign to have him, you know, confirmed as Supreme Court justice. We want to ask you about that, as well. Jane Mayer, New Yorker writer, author of Dark Money, that just came out in paperback. Stay with us.