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Inside The Wealthy Family That Has Been Funding Steve Bannon's Plan For Years


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. According to our guest, Jane Mayer, one of the most influential figures in America today is a man most of us have never heard of. Mayer's new piece in The New Yorker focuses on Robert Mercer, a wealthy hedge fund manager with very conservative - and as you'll hear - somewhat eccentric views.

Mayer writes that Mercer and his daughter Rebekah played critical roles in President Trump's successful campaign last year, were influential in the transition to the White House and remain connected to key players in the West Wing. The Mercers have been major backers of Breitbart News and Steve Bannon's other projects for years, and they were influential in getting Bannon and Kellyanne Conway into leadership positions in the Trump campaign.

Jane Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker who's won numerous honors including the George Polk Award. Her latest book now out in paperback is "Dark Money: The Hidden History Of The Billionaires Behind The Rise Of The Radical Right."

Well, Jane Mayer, welcome back to the show. In this piece, you tell us about Robert Mercer, who it turns out has a profound influence on the Trump campaign and on the White House. How did he make his fortune?

JANE MAYER: He made his fortune as a computer scientist who figured out how to write programs that anticipated swings in the stock markets in all kinds of trading, and he brought that sense of how to game the - sort of the financial markets to a hedge fund called Renaissance Technologies which has absolutely minted money ever since.

DAVIES: We'll get to his political views, but first what kind of person is he? I think he's described in the title as reclusive.

MAYER: He's a very unusual character. He is somebody who speaks very, very rarely. He has told colleagues that he prefers the company of cats to humans, and he has some very peculiar ideas about how the world should work and how it does work. And he tends to read kind of extreme far-right publications from which he gets his information.

DAVIES: Somewhere he told someone that he loves the solitude of a computer lab at night.

MAYER: I've read a couple of speeches he's given and talked to people about him. The one sort of instance in which he expresses sort of complete passion is about computers. He talks about how he just loves hearing the clacking of the disks late at night and working alone. He's a real loner who is a - something of a genius when it comes to math and computers, but almost so painfully awkward with other human beings. He can't look them in the eye when he speaks to them.

DAVIES: Do we know anything about his wealth, how rich he is?

MAYER: Well, it's hard to know exactly, but according to institutional investor, he makes approximately $135 million a year.

DAVIES: And while we don't know his net worth, for certain, I mean, there is a pretty extravagant lifestyle. It's - I love the description of the yacht Sea Owl.

MAYER: Well, yes. I mean, what happened was he made an incredible amount of money very fast, and he'd lived a relatively middle-class life until he switched over to this hedge fund in 1993 and started making so much money that he and his family could pretty much indulge any kind of material fantasies that they had. And one of the things that he started spending money on were these just spectacular yachts.

So he's got one called the Sea Owl that is 203-feet long, and it is - it's just - I've seen pictures of it in yachting magazines. It's almost unimaginable. It's filled with all kinds of frescoes for his grandchildren of "Alice In Wonderland" and Newton's physics and math.

And it's got a player piano Steinway made out of rosewood and four floors of a twisting tree that's been then carved out of mahogany that goes up and down and a spa pool and lots of little boats that you can take excursions off of it from and its crystal chandeliers that came from Venice. And it's just soaked in money. It's kind of like beyond most people's imagining.

DAVIES: And it has an elevator.

MAYER: It does have - if you get really tired from all the other fun, it has an elevator to take you up to the top floor.

DAVIES: I assume you tried to talk to Bob Mercer and his daughter, right?

MAYER: I did. And that's one of the characteristics of the Mercers is that they don't speak to the mainstream media. They don't speak to the press at all as far as I can tell. Bob Mercer did give a brief interview to a boating magazine about the decor of his yacht. But it - he's just a very reclusive and difficult to reach person.

He gave one interview to someone writing a book to Sebastian Mallaby who wrote a book about hedge funds called "More Money Than God." And in that interview, he spoke to Mallaby a little, but Mallaby described him as having the demeanor of an icy cold poker player.

DAVIES: OK. He's married, has three daughters. Let's talk about his political views. Back in the '90s, he developed very strong opinions about the Clintons. Tell us about them.

MAYER: Right. So this was really, for me, the challenge of this piece. There have been other pieces about Bob Mercer, but nothing really cracked the code of what does he want? What does he believe in? And so I put a lot of effort into trying to find out and finally got a number of colleagues who've worked with him to explain what he thinks politically.

And what he thinks is he believes in conspiracy theories about the Clintons. He has told at least three people that I've talked to that they literally had their opponents murdered. And so that began in the '90s him saying such things. And it's actually continued on up into recent times. He continues to have told people that he thinks the Clintons are murderers.

DAVIES: One of the Mercer's early efforts in political campaigns involved an election in 2010 with Peter DeFazio. He was the incumbent Democrat, I believe, the congressman in Oregon. This is fascinating. Tell us about it.

MAYER: Well, this was right after the Citizens United decision, so it was the first year where the people with, you know, tremendous amounts of money could just pour as much as they wanted into an outside campaign into a super PAC. And the Mercers took advantage of that right away, and they poured something like between 600 and $700,000 in the end of the campaign into this little congressional race out in Oregon.

And nobody knew where the money was coming from. It just seemed to drop on to DeFazio's head. And it - there were many sort of theories going around about who was behind it and why. And when people figured out it was a New York hedge fund magnate, they thought it might have been because DeFazio was talking about imposing a tax on financial trades like the kind that Mercer's firm...

DAVIES: Right.

MAYER: ...Renaissance Technologies does. But it turned out that was really not the main motive according to people who know the Mercers. It was that they are tremendous fans of the Republican who was running, a man named Arthur Robinson.

DAVIES: And tell us about Arthur Robinson.

MAYER: So Arthur Robinson is a biochemist who has a - kind of a laboratory on his sheep farm in Oregon, and he is doing research on trying to extend the human lifespan by studying urine. He's gathered something like 14,000 samples of human urine that he keeps in refrigerators that are largely paid for by the Mercers. So he's an unusual scientist.

DAVIES: And he lost the election.

MAYER: He did lose the election. He ran two more times and lost those two, and the Mercers put money into those as well.

DAVIES: I don't know if you know, but what can he learn from all that urine?

MAYER: The - his hope is that he will be able to see things that will allow him to predict disease in advance. And I don't know the fine points, but none of the work I know is peer reviewed at this point. So far it's not taken terribly seriously by most scientists.

DAVIES: Robinson also has some interesting views on climate change and nuclear war that the Mercers have shown an interest in, right?

MAYER: Among the theories that Robinson has propounded and that Bob Mercer has accepted is that climate change is not happening. It's not for real, and if it is happening, it's going to be good for the planet. That's one of his theories, and the other theory that I found particularly worrisome was they believe that nuclear war is really not such a big deal. It's survivable, and - they think.

And they've actually argued that outside of the immediate blast zone in Japan during World War II - outside of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - that the radiation was actually good for the Japanese. So they see a kind of a silver lining in nuclear war and nuclear accidents. And he co-authored a book in 1986 that I took a look at that describes ways that Americans can survive nuclear war by basically digging fallout shelters all across the country. And he believes that radiation is potentially good for people's health.

DAVIES: And do the Mercer's seem to have embraced Robinson's views about nuclear war and climate change?

MAYER: Well, Bob Mercer has certainly embraced the view that radiation could be good for human health - low level radiation. And he's been in arguments with people that I interviewed about it, so, yes, very much. He seems extremely influenced by Arthur Robinson's scientific findings.

You know, it'd be one thing if these views were just, you know, kind of wacky points of view that a few people have that, you know - everybody's entitled to their own opinion. But the problem is this is someone who has tremendous influence over our country at this point.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Jane Mayer. She is a staff writer for The New Yorker. She has a new piece about Robert Mercer, a wealthy contributor who has influence in the Trump White House and was influential in the Trump campaign. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and we're speaking with Jane Mayer. She's a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her recent book about the growth of conservative politics in America is called "Dark Money." She has a new piece about Robert Mercer, a wealthy contributor who had influence in the Trump campaign and the Trump White House. Now let's talk about his daughter Rebekah. You mentioned her. Tell us about her.

MAYER: There are three daughters that Bob Mercer and his wife, Diana, had. And Rebekah is the middle daughter. She's 43 years old now, and she went to Stanford and got an advanced degree. And then went to Wall Street and actually worked at her father's firm for a while trading. But she has become very much the voice of her father's politics, which she shares. And her passion is politics, so - and she's described alternately as - one of the people I interviewed described her as sort of an enchanting firecracker. And others have said, you know, she can be hot-headed and sort of overbearing. But at any rate, she is the spokesman for the Mercer money...


MAYER: ...in politics. The - after - they began putting money into the Romney campaign in 2012, and they were very disappointed in the outcome. And felt, in fact, I think Rebekah Mercer, from the reporting I've done, people say she was pretty incensed that after putting in something like $3 million from her family that he hadn't won. And so they then struck out after 2012 to start figuring out more effective and strategic approaches to getting their way in politics. And that's when they start really stepping up the spending.

So if you look at their spending in total from 2008 to 2016, both the money that they've put into campaigns and super PACs and into kind of ideological, nonprofit spending, it comes to something like $77 million over those eight years.

DAVIES: And that's reported spending, might it be larger?

MAYER: It absolutely could be larger because there's plenty of dark money that you can't trace.


MAYER: But that's a tremendous amount of money.

DAVIES: Right. You and others have mentioned that after Mitt Romney lost to Obama in 2012, there was a postmortem that Republicans were having and she had a few thoughts to share.

MAYER: She (laughter) absolutely did. She stood up in this kind of, you know, very civilized men's club where the Republicans were meeting to discuss what went wrong. And she just ripped them for what she thought was incompetence. And everybody turned around and thought, who is that? And one of her friends said to me, that was Rebekah's coming out.

DAVIES: It's interesting to me that she and her father have such strong opinions and not a whole lot of experience in political campaigns, but think they know better than the pros, right?

MAYER: Well, absolutely. I mean, they have very extreme views, and they're impatient - both of them. They want action fast. And what was a question for me as I was reporting this was, so how did they get what they wanted? What did they do? And they couldn't really do it on their own because, like many wealthy people who have strong political ideas, they have no idea how to sort of manipulate politics. They need some kind of professional help. And the person they turned to for that was Steve Bannon.

DAVIES: How did they get to know one another?

MAYER: Well, so back in 2012 - the Mercers go to all kinds of conservative conferences, and they were at one that was held by the Club for Growth. And they saw Andrew Breitbart there. He was the man who started Breitbart News. And he was a - just this fiery speaker about how conservatives would never win unless they took back the culture and took back the news media. And the Mercers were very impressed with Breitbart and expressed an interest in investing in what he was doing. He was setting up his own alternative news operation.

And Breitbart was joined at the hip with Steve Bannon at that point. Bannon had come out of investment banking. He'd been at Goldman Sachs. He understood finances, and he was trying to help Breitbart grow fast and get investors. And so that was when Bannon met the Mercers. And he convinced the Mercers to put $10 million into Breitbart News in 2012. And Bannon and then became one of the major figures running Breitbart News.

And it was not too long after that - it was in March of 2012 - Breitbart died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of 43, and Bannon took over Breitbart News and the Mercers became his sponsors. So really what was interesting to me was before Bannon was the political strategist and adviser to Donald Trump, he played that role for this extraordinarily wealthy family and helped direct their political spending and efforts.

DAVIES: And the Mercers also put a lot of money into the Government Accountability Institute, which is this Florida-based research vehicle that produced a lot of material that Breitbart News used very effectively to get credibility in the mainstream media.

MAYER: Right. So after 2012 went badly for the Republicans, the Mercers and Bannon were very strategic about how to do better next time. And one of the things they did was start this organization called the Government Accountability Institute, which in essence is an opposition research business - digs up dirt on political opponents with massive resources to do so, and then hands that dirt to news organizations that have credibility that will run it.

And so what they were trying to do was kind of fill a gap on investigative reporting. As news organizations are stressed financially, they can do less investigative reporting. And this private organization with its strong political bent was going to do the work for the reporters - hand it to them. And they are the ones that came up with a book called "Clinton Cash." And they handed a copy of it early to The New York Times, which ran with a story out of it on its front page, which is exactly what they were hoping for.

DAVIES: Now, did the Mercers have much of a relationship with Donald Trump before the 2016 election?

MAYER: Well, no. That's - it's one of the interesting things, is they really didn't. I think Rebekah Mercer, you know, knew Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner just a little bit, but they really were not close in any way. Yet, when Trump's campaign started to really fall apart last August, it was Mercer's daughter who met with Trump's people and with Trump and said, I'll put money in, but you're going to have to basically put my people in charge of your campaign.

DAVIES: And at this point, did Trump have a relationship with Steve Bannon? Was that appealing to him?

MAYER: Well, now, Trump and Steve Bannon go way back. And that's a different story. Steve Bannon saw Trump speak at CPAC - the Conservative Political Action Conference - years ago, maybe 2013 or 2014, and was blown away by Trump. And so he's been actually quite helpful to Trump for years. He - when he was running Breitbart, Bannon gave Trump tons of great coverage and really boosted his visibility. So yeah - so Bannon and Trump have been in touch for quite some time.

DAVIES: So what did Steve Bannon and Breitbart do to promote Trump's views and image?

MAYER: Well, according to people I interviewed such as Sam Nunberg, who was an early, early member of the Trump campaign, Breitbart was enormously helpful in providing a platform for Trump, a national platform. And it gave Trump space to sort of test out his narrative and see which storylines worked best and promoted him so much so that Steve Bannon wrote an email to a friend that eventually leaked out - and this was way back in - in 2015 - saying that he was secretly Trump's campaign manager.

DAVIES: Any more detail about what Breitbart did to promote Trump that you can recall?

MAYER: Early on when Trump was pushing this birther theory against Obama claiming that Obama was not born in the United States, Breitbart gave him a lot of space to do that. And it's allowed him to just push his point of view in a way, give him a platform. When - as Sam Nunberg said to me, you know, it wasn't as if Charlie Rose was putting us on the air.

DAVIES: Right.

MAYER: The mainstream media - I mean, a lot of what the Mercers have done is to fund and provide an alternative media world for Trump to get his message across. By creating Breitbart and by creating the Government Accountability Institute which produced these books, they have - they've created a rival media sphere and meanwhile attacked the mainstream media to try to sort of knock it down.

DAVIES: You actually spoke to Steve Bannon for this piece.

MAYER: I did speak to Steve Bannon.

DAVIES: What did he tell you?

MAYER: And he was fascinating. He's very articulate, and he said - he minced no words about the Mercers. He said they laid the groundwork for the Trump revolution. He said irrefutably that when you look at the donors in the past four years, he said they've had the single biggest impact of anybody, including the Kochs.

DAVIES: Jane Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her latest book now out in paperback is "Dark Money: The Hidden History Of The Billionaires Behind The Rise Of The Radical Right." After a break, we'll hear more about the Mercer's influence in the Trump campaign and White House. And Maureen Corrigan reviews a new novel about college life from the author of the book "Admissions" (ph). I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer, whose new piece is about the influence on Donald Trump's campaign and presidency of a reclusive hedge fund manager, Robert Mercer, and his daughter Rebekah. They put millions into Breitbart News and other projects of Steve Bannon, now chief strategist in the White House.

Mayer's latest book now out in paperback is "Dark Money: The Hidden History Of The Billionaires Behind The Rise Of The Radical Right." It's interesting that as influential as Mercer - Robert Mercer - and his daughter Rebekah seem to be that Trump was not their candidate initially in the race. It was Ted Cruz. How did that go?

MAYER: Well, obviously, it didn't go the way they hoped it would go.


MAYER: He didn't win, but they jumped quickly from him. I mean - the thing you have to know about the Mercers was that what was animating their involvement in this 2016 cycle as much as anything else, according to people who know them, is their hatred of Hillary Clinton. I mean, it goes back to this idea that Bob Mercer believes the Clintons literally were murderers. He reads pretty far right journals and had become convinced that they were, you know, crooks and worse.

So he was going to throw the family's money behind anybody that he thought could beat Hillary Clinton. And he became convinced quite early that it would take a certain kind of candidate to beat Clinton, an outsider.

DAVIES: There is this critical moment in August of last year when there's a leadership change in the Trump campaign. And Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway become campaign chairman and manager. What were the - what was the Mercers' role in this?

MAYER: Well, it was Rebekah Mercer who met with Trump and said - your campaign's a mess. I would like to support you, but you're going to have to straighten out the way you're running it. And she suggested that he put Steve Bannon in charge of the campaign as campaign chairman, Kellyanne Conway in charge as campaign manager and that they also put in David Bossie, who runs the group Citizens United, as deputy campaign manager. And Bossie is someone else who the Mercers have supported financially through his group for quite some time. In essence, they were circling Trump with their own people.

DAVIES: And it's interesting to me that Trump made this decision. I can't imagine that he needed the Mercers' financial contributions to the campaign enough that it - was this a matter of him trusting Bannon and trusting this team and trusting the Mercers?

MAYER: Well, I mean, the campaign at that particular point was at a - it was at a low point. I mean, you may remember, this is when Paul Manafort had been the campaign manager and every day another story was coming out in the news connecting Paul Manafort to corrupt Ukrainian leaders. And there were this swirl of rumors about Putin and Russia having undue influence over the Trump group. And so Rebekah Mercer came in with props and said, you know, look at these stories. You can't keep having this happen to you. It's going to, you know, drag you down. You're not going to win.

And Trump was pretty easily convinced he needed to jump horses. And that's what he did.

DAVIES: Right. So this team that's very close to the Mercers are, in effect, running the Trump campaign. What kind of influence did they have for the remainder of the campaign in September and October? Do we know?

MAYER: Well, I mean, at that point, what happens is you have people like Bill Kristol who are conservatives who are sort of more mainstream conservatives than the Mercers who are way out there on the right fringe. And they're saying - Bill Kristol wrote a piece saying, you know, the kooks are taking over - the right-wing kooks are taking over the Trump campaign. That's how they were viewed, even in Republican circles.

What happens is Trump doubles down on his message. Many people have been saying that he should moderate at that point. But instead, he gets more fiery and more of an economic nationalist and angrier and more of a populist. And that's very much the influence of Bannon. So you can see some of that. And then what happens after they win is the Mercers are really, you know, sitting in the catbird seat. They've put in the money in the end, and they've got their people surrounding Trump.

And Rebekah Mercer is rewarded by being given an official seat on the transition team. This is someone who's had zero political experience and no background in government. But she's sitting on the transition team, and she's a force and lobbies for her choices of people to run the U.S. government.

DAVIES: And what kind of success did she have in pushing her people?

MAYER: She had mixed success, but she had some serious successes with Mike Flynn who she wanted to have become national security adviser. And of course, Trump did choose him. He didn't last very long, but he was in there. And she pushed very hard for Jeff Sessions to be the attorney general, and she got success with that. And she pushed very hard to have Bannon play a major role in the White House. And of course, he is now Trump's strategic adviser. And at first, she was hoping that Kellyanne Conway would not go into the White House but would stay outside and help Rebekah Mercer run an outside group that would support Trump, but that didn't happen. Kellyanne Conway went into the White House.

So her people did quite well. I mean, there's some people that she wanted that didn't get jobs. She wanted John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to be the secretary of state, and she was very disappointed when he didn't get that. And she has touted this very odd scientist that her family has supported, Arthur Robinson, to be the national science adviser. And so far, that hasn't happened.

DAVIES: You know, it's no small thing to have influence in a presidential campaign. But, you know, running the entire government is an operation of a whole different scale. And a president, you know, has a lot more influence-seekers. Have the Mercers maintained their influence as the administration has unfolded?

MAYER: Well, from what I understand, Rebekah Mercer and Steve Bannon talk a lot. And so there's an open channel there. And I think if you sort of step back, one of the things that interests me about what Trump is doing is I think you can see that he is - on questions having to do with the health care fight and the budget, he's taking positions that are very much aligned with the super-rich donors, particularly things that the Mercers would have liked and in some ways, taking policy positions that hurt many of the middle-class and lower middle-class voters who supported him.

So it's hard to know exactly whether it's because he was supported and needed the support of people like the Mercers. But you have to wonder whether the reason his administration is taking these positions is partly because he's so surrounded by some of these super wealthy, very right donors like the Mercers.

DAVIES: It's hard to get inside an administration, you know, where there are lots of contending forces and know what's really going on. There was a piece in Huffington Post recently that suggested that the Mercers are less welcome, less influential - that Bannon is even saying he expects to be fired within a year.

MAYER: I've actually heard that, too - that Bannon's saying he's kind of on a kamikaze mission where he is going to do everything he can possibly do and he doesn't expect that he'll last forever. And people have said to me, you know, the Mercers may have given whatever number of millions that they gave to Trump. But now that Trump is president, any number of billionaires can - will be surrounding him and giving him support when he wants it. So their particular role may be somewhat diluted at this point.

But at the same time, Rebekah Mercer's got a game plan in mind. What she's hoping to do is start an outside group that's outside of the White House that's going to be a powerful voice pushing Trump to take her point of view. And so when - it will trumpet his moves when they - when she thinks they're good and attack him when she thinks that he's, you know, not following a tough enough line. And I - you know, so we will start probably seeing commercials and a lot of social media coming from this group.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Jane Mayer. She is a staff writer for The New Yorker. She has a new piece about the influence of Robert Mercer and his family in the Trump campaign and the Trump administration. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Jane Mayer. She is a staff writer for The New Yorker, also the author of "Dark Money: The Hidden History Of The Billionaires Behind The Rise Of The Radical Right."

An interesting piece of this story is that another member of the Mercers' firm, Renaissance Technologies, came out and publicly criticized them. David Magerman is the guy, right? Tell us about that.

MAYER: It was an extraordinary break, I think, really in the protocol at Renaissance Technologies, which is a terrifically secretive company. You know, it guards its trade secrets like some special secret sauce. And so the people who work there are very, very silent about what they're doing and what's going on in there. But David Magerman, who lives in Philadelphia, is one of the top people. He's been there for 20 years at Renaissance Technologies, apparently a brilliant financial mind. And he got into kind of an argument with Bob Mercer on the phone - it began that way - where they had different political points of view.

Magerman, I guess, is sort of a centrist Democrat and very active in the Jewish community. And he was worried that some of the things that the Mercers are supporting, particularly Breitbart News, is a platform for what's called the alt-right, meaning, you know, kind of white-supremacist and sometimes anti-Semitic views. So they got into an argument about this, and it escalated.

And eventually, it ended up with their being a piece in The Wall Street Journal where Magerman spoke out about what Bob Mercer thinks politically. And it had been very hard for people outside of the firm to know what Bob Mercer's agenda was and why he was getting so involved in politics. And Magerman kind of spilled the beans.

He said that Mercer wanted to shrink the government to the size of a pinhead and that he doesn't think that - he basically has a philosophy, according to Magerman, that values people on the basis of what they earn. He doesn't think human beings have intrinsic value. He thinks that if you are a schoolteacher and you earn 2 million times less than Mercer earns, then you're 2 million times less valuable than Mercer is. And he believes that if you are on welfare, you have negative value. And what Magerman said was, and he's not talking about economically. He means as a human being.

So he has this kind of very mechanistic, almost kind of Ayn Rand-like, objectivist philosophy. And anyway, so Magerman spoke out about him. And for having done that, he was suspended by Renaissance Technologies for 30 days. And I'm not sure that his status has been clarified yet.

DAVIES: He wrote in an opinion piece that the Mercers were essentially buying shares of the candidate, Donald Trump, and they now own a sizable share of the U.S. presidency. Is that a fair assessment?

MAYER: Well, I mean, his point was that they've bought a stake. They invested in him as a candidate, and now, you know, they've surrounded Trump with, as he says, their own people running our country. And so that - they've kind of turned it - politics into, you know, a corporate takeover.

I - you know, I mean, I think it's a really (laughter) interesting point of view. And I think, you know, that it certainly - I think he's right to raise alarms about the power that this kind of money has. I mean, you know, everybody's got a right to express their own opinion, as he says. But some opinions, when they're backed by millions and millions of dollars, are, you know, shaping the country. And, you know, for a democracy, that's a big worry.

DAVIES: You know, some big donors exercise influence over candidates and elected officials because their money is so outsized in proportion to the campaigns that the candidate really needs it to keep winning elections and building their political ambitions. And it struck me that the Mercers' influence over Trump seems somewhat different.

I mean, I don't - doesn't seem like they funded his campaign at a scale that was critical. I mean, he spent over $300 million. Hillary spent over $1 billion. But that - you know, Trump's a guy who goes by his gut, is influenced by people he is impressed with. I don't know this, but I just wonder if their influence really stems from Trump's confidence in them and Bannon and their people more than their money. What do you think?

MAYER: Well, I think that's a good point. I think their impact is different, I agree, than what many people think of as, you know, someone who just pours money into a campaign and kind of owns the candidate. What they did was really much more strategic and subtle, which was they built up an infrastructure of groups and - particularly aimed at the media, where they built up their own media organization, that shaped and drove the whole narrative of the campaign.

What their contribution was to Trump, much more than just cash, was the definition of Hillary Clinton as corrupt because of that book "Clinton Cash" that they financed. And it was their development of - and inflaming of anger on the right and among middle-class people, middle-class voters who felt that they were conned by the Washington insiders.

By - they helped really frame the issues, and I think that - I have to say I think that's the hand of Steve Bannon. He - they funded him, and he shaped and drove a lot of the narrative in this last campaign.

DAVIES: So as long as Trump is still listening to Bannon and Bannon is still listening to the Mercers, they have a lot of influence, right?

MAYER: Well, you know, yes and no. I mean, I - my guess is that Steve Bannon is much more Rebekah Mercer's teacher or - and some have even said Svengali than that he's taking dictation from her. I think that the family's money enabled him to be as influential as he was because it, you know - it gave him the ammo, it gave him the - it weaponized his political point of view because they poured millions of dollars into these outside groups that pushed this political worldview that Bannon has. So it's hard to know where the Mercer's politics and agenda ends and Steve Bannon's begins and vice versa. But the team together was formidable.

When you think back about Trump as a politician, I think one of the fascinating things is that in many senses, he was kind of a tabula rasa. I mean, he used to be, you know, leaned quite towards being a Democrat and support a number of Democrats. He could have been whatever he needed to be basically. And I think that the Mercer's money and Bannon's, you know, strategic advice helped shape Trump's message and helped very much align the Republican Party with their view of what it should be.

They kind of - they took on the old powers in the Republican Party. They constantly attacked the leadership of the Republican Party in Congress. And so they've had this kind of outsized influence on the direction of politics. And I imagine, you know, they helped kind of really strengthen his instincts to focus on - against immigration and against trade. And, you know, these are things that Trump had been talking about, but they really sort of weaponized it.

DAVIES: You know, you spent years covering American politics. You did this big book "Dark Money," and as you've looked at these events, do you think American politics is changing in some fundamental way, the way elections are won the way administrations are influenced?

MAYER: Well, I mean, I think one of the things that's happened, especially since the Citizens United decision and the others that were part of that was - is that you can now have people - a few people with an incredible amount of money who the rest of the country doesn't even know their names, let alone who they are or what they want. And they can have this outsized impact. And I think that that's what's different.

You know, before Citizens United, there was still a lot of money in politics, but because there were limits on how much any single person could give at any time to PACs, there were bundlers, and they were known to people. And they were - kind of the parties had much more influence which had much more consensus.

Now you've got these outsiders who may have very eccentric views that the rest the country doesn't share, but because they've got that much money, they can kind of impose those views on everyone else.

DAVIES: Well, Jane Mayer, good to talk to you again. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

MAYER: Great to be with you.

DAVIES: Jane Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her latest book now out in paperback is "Dark Money The Hidden History Of The Billionaires Behind The Rise Of The Radical Right."

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new novel from the author of the book "Admissions" (ph). This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.