In the weeks before the Republican National Convention in 2016, then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort told Cambridge Analytica he wasn’t interested in its services—and, in the process, angered a very powerful Republican mega-donor.
Manafort had joined the Trump’s campaign to help the then-nominee gear up for the convention, and he became the campaign’s chairman (deposing Corey Lewandowski) on May 29. After taking the helm, Alexander Nix—Cambridge’s now-suspended CEO—met with Manafort in person to pitch him on his firm’s data services, according to two sources familiar with the meeting.
The company has long been enmeshed with powerful Republican circles. According to an email sent by a Cambridge Analytica staffer and reviewed by The Daily Beast, the company licensed data from DataTrust, which manages Republican National Committee’s voter data. Ad Age described DataTrust in 2016 as “the RNC’s exclusive data provider.”
By the time of the Manafort-Nix get-together, Cambridge had worked for Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign and for the pro-Trump super PAC funded by the GOP king-makers Robert and Rebekah Mercer. But Cambridge Analytica hadn’t yet worked for Trump’s campaign. Nix wanted in.
After hearing the pitch and the price for Cambridge’s services, Manafort communicated to Nix that he wasn’t interested, according to the two sources. Manafort also communicated to associates that he had a low opinion of the firm’s offerings. He wasn’t alone in this view; numerous campaign operatives who have worked with Cambridge have told The Daily Beast over the years that they found its offerings sub-par, overstated, and disappointing. As one longtime Republican data operative put it: “People think they’re dealing with evil masterminds, when they’re really just Keystone Cops.”
Rebekah Mercer wasn’t happy about Manafort’s rejection of the company, according to the sources. She was (and still is) a member of the company’s board, and her father—billionaire hedge fund savant Robert Mercer—has investments in the company.
Despite Manafort’s initial rejection, the company kept trying to get on board with the campaign. And Mercer finally got her way: On July 29, 2016, the campaign paid $100,000 to the company—its first payment to Cambridge—for “data management services,” according to a filing with the Federal Elections Commission.
Over the following months, the campaign paid the company $5.9 million for its services. The company simultaneously worked for the super PAC, a lawful practice that campaign finance watchdogs believe can present major ethical problems. In total, the super PAC paid Cambridge Analytica about $1.5 million during the presidential campaign season (including payments made when the super PAC was supporting Cruz).
A spokesperson for Manafort declined to comment. A lawyer for Rebekah Mercer did not respond to requests for comment, and neither did a spokesperson for Cambridge Analytica.
Manafort left Trump’s campaign on Aug. 19, 2016. Just over a year later, special counsel Bob Mueller charged him with a number of crimes related to his work lobbying for foreign governments.
Cambridge Analytica is now at the center of a political and media vortex, since the U.K.’s Observer and The New York Times published damning exposés centered around a Cambridge Analytica whistleblower. Channel 4 released documentaries based on hidden-camera footage, showing Nix saying the company uses blackmail and bribery to help its preferred candidates win.
Last year, Nix told Rebekah Mercer that he offered the company’s services to WikiLeaks to help disburse emails stolen from Hillary Clinton. Assange confirmed to The Daily Beast that Nix reached out and that he declined his help. And an email sent by a Cambridge Analytica staffer and reviewed by The Daily Beast shows the company relished the prospect of more Clinton email leaks.