The Mercers Wash Their Hands of Milo

The conservative billionaire distances himself from the right-wing provocateur, whose reputation has been sullied by reports outlining his ties to white nationalists.

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In a rare acknowledgement of the controversies caused by his family’s political advocacy, billionaire Republican donor Robert Mercer is stepping down from his hedge fund and selling his stake in Breitbart News to his daughters.

The move was announced in a letter Mercer reportedly sent to employees of his investment fund, Renaissance Technologies. In the letter, Mercer disavowed Milo Yiannopoulos, the right-wing provocateur and former Breitbart tech editor whose close ties to white-nationalist figures were revealed in a tranche of emails leaked to BuzzFeed News. Despite the letter, sources familiar with Mercer’s situation tell me this doesn’t mean the family is retreating from politics.

“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,” Mercer wrote. “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 even seemed to distance himself from Breitbart chairman and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who oversaw Yiannopoulos during the latter’s time at Breitbart.

“The press has also intimated that my politics marches in lockstep with Steve Bannon’s,” Mercer wrote. “I have great respect for Mr. Bannon, and from time to time I do discuss politics with him. However, I make my own decisions with respect to whom I support politically. Those decisions do not always align with Mr. Bannon’s.”

Mercer’s comments could seem a bad sign for Bannon, though a Bannon ally said there were no negative implications for the intra-party insurgency against establishment Republicans Bannon is planning for the 2018 midterm elections.

Mercer’s retirement from Renaissance and exit from Breitbart “frees up time for him to be even more engaged politically,” this person said. “Expect him to work closer with Steve.” Another Republican source with knowledge of the situation predicted that “There’s gonna be no financial distance at the end of the day.” Even before this, Mercer’s daughter Rebekah had played a decisive role in the family’s political decisions.

It’s rare for the secretive Mercers—especially Robert—to speak publicly, and even rarer for them to bow to public pressure. While much of the Republican party was throwing Donald Trump overboard after the leak of the Access Hollywood tape which showed him boasting about groping women, the Mercers stood by him. They called the comments on the tape “locker room braggadocio” and slammed “those among the political elite who quake before the boombox of media blather” who “do not appreciate the apocalyptic choice that America faces on Nov. 8.”

But over the past year, there has been intense scrutiny of the family and their record in politics. They invested a reported $10 million in Breitbart News years ago, and have given to causes and candidates all over the right-wing map. But the reason for their becoming objects of media fascination is their early support of Trump before other major donors got on board. It is Rebekah Mercer who recommended that Trump hire Bannon and Kellyanne Conway.

This has also focused more attention on Renaissance. An activist group called Sleeping Giants, which has also targeted Breitbart advertisers, has launched a campaign aimed at pressuring Renaissance investors to take their money back from the fund. A former executive has sued the company after he was fired, he claims, for speaking out against Mercer’s support of Trump. In the lawsuit, the executive, David Magerman, claimed that Mercer had made comments disparaging the Civil Rights Act and accusing black Americans of being the “only racist people remaining in the U.S.”

Mercer’s letter on Thursday refers to these allegations: “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,” he wrote. “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.”

But, Mercer did until recently give financial backing to Yiannopoulos, who has made a career of provocation on race, gender, and other identity issues. BuzzFeed’s recent story included a video of Yiannopoulos singing in a karaoke bar as the white nationalist “alt-right” leader Richard Spencer and others give Nazi salutes. The story also reported that Yiannopoulos’s passwords included references to Kristallnacht, the 1938 anti-Semitic German pogrom that historians mark as the beginning of the Holocaust, and the Night of the Long Knives, the murderous 1934 purge of Hitler’s onetime allies by Nazi paramilitaries.

A source with close knowledge of the relationship between Yiannopoulos and the Mercers said the email leak had been a last straw.

It “showed a complete lack of professionalism,” this person said. Yiannopoulos had already been damaged by his ejection from Breitbart News earlier this year after comments he made defending pedophilia surfaced, and by a failed attempt to hold a “Free Speech Week” on the UC-Berkeley campus. “I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner,” this source said of the Mercers’ cutting Yiannopoulos off.

“I am grateful for Bob’s help in getting me this far in my career,” Yiannopoulos told me in a text message. “I wish him and the family all the best.”

On his Facebook page, Yiannopoulos posted this same statement but with another, more defiant line in addition: “Another round of press declaring me dead! It’s getting sad for the media. They are so desperate to see me fail. And I keep on succeeding. Poor lambs.”