During the conversation, which took place Thursday afternoon and was relayed to The Daily Beast by a senior White House official, Mercer and Trump addressed Bannon’s scorched-earth comments that appear in Michael Wolff’s new book on the Trump White House, and the donor reaffirmed her support for Trump’s presidency and his agenda.
White House spokesman Raj Shah declined to confirm the call or its details, but did not deny that it took place.
The interaction underscored the high stakes of the very public and very ugly feud between the president and his former chief strategist. Bannon, again the chairman of the right-wing, pro-Trump Breitbart News, has in two days been publicly scorned by his most high-profile political ally in Trump, and his most deep-pocketed financial backer in Mercer.
"My family and I have not communicated with Steve Bannon in many months and have provided no financial support to his political agenda, nor do we support his recent actions and statements,” Mercer said, in a statement to The Washington Post published Thursday evening.
While it was clear that the Mercers were publicly distancing themselves from Bannon this week, two people with knowledge of their past meetings and conversations disputed the claim of “many months.” According to these sources, Bannon and Mercer met in New York as recently as October. And right around the time of Bannon’s ejection from the Trump White House in August, Bannon met with patriarch Robert Mercer for a five-hour-long meeting “to plot out next steps,” according to a report in Axios at the time.
The Mercers and Bannon have been close for years. For instance, when Bannon tried and failed to set up Breitbart India in 2015, Rebekah was at his side, interviewing candidates for editor positions. The Mercer family had funded Bannon projects for years, but the apparent falling out has led to a cessation of generous funds. On Thursday, The New York Times reported that the Mercers had even cut off funding for Bannon’s personal security detail.
Rebekah Mercer did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment on Thursday. Bannon declined comment.
The sudden and overwhelming backlash against Bannon came after two days of his private assurances that all is well, and that he was in zero danger of losing his leadership post at Breitbart, where Mercer owns a sizeable stake. Though rumors have swirled for weeks that the Mercers were seriously weighing severing financial ties, Bannon has told every associate, colleague, and reporter who inquired about the rumors, right up until they were publicly confirmed, that they were “total nonsense,” as multiple sources recounted.
For some, it harked back to the days and weeks before his departure from the White House. Despite President Trump’s growing desire at the time to have Bannon sacked, the onetime chief strategist likewise assured his close allies, up until the Friday he was officially out, that he wasn’t going anywhere, and that Chief of Staff John Kelly and the president had his back. His departure was soon announced and he immediately returned to Breitbart, the influential conservative site he’d led since the death of its eponymous founder in 2012.
On Thursday, Bannon attempted to operate as business-as-usual, personally helming Breitbart’s editorial conference call in the late afternoon, as he typically does. Nonetheless, those close to him worry that a loss of Trump’s political support and the Mercers’ financial backing could all but doom his ambitious plans for an anti-establishment insurgency in the GOP during this year’s midterm elections—a “season of war,” as he previously dubbed it.
And as of Thursday’s close of business, Breitbart staff continued to be in the dark about Bannon’s fate at the organization.
Bannon’s political enemies, chiefly in the camp of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, took the opportunity Thursday to dance on Bannon’s apparent political grave.
“If I were running for office and had any legitimate expectation of winning I’d figure out how to cut the cord on Steve Bannon as quickly as possible,” Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff, told The Daily Beast. “He was always going to be a gigantic general-election liability, but now he takes the same radioactivity into a primary as well. There is no constituency for Steve Bannon.”
The McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund, which emailed out President Trump’s scathing rebuke of Bannon in full on Wednesday, felt little need to elaborate on what spokesman Chris Pack described as a succinct summary of its longtime characterization of Bannon and his political apparatus.
“This just goes to what we have been saying all along. Steve Bannon is toxic,” Pack told The Daily Beast. “That is why we have been warning candidates to stay away from him and his baggage, like defending a credibly accused child molester, for example.”
At least some candidates that initially appeared fully in Bannon’s camp—and diametrically opposed to the GOP’s establishment wing—appear to be taking that advice. Former Arizona State Senator Kelli Ward, a Breitbart favorite in the race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, attempted to put some distance between Bannon and herself in a Wednesday statement.
Her campaign called Bannon, who headlined a rally for Ward in October, “only one of many high-profile endorsements Dr. Ward has received.”
In West Virginia, where Republican Senate primary candidates have battled over who is more loyal to Trump, both contenders quickly took the same tack as Ward. Rep. Evan Jenkins called on his opponent, State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, to “immediately disavow Bannon’s support.” Morrisey, the Bannon-backed candidate in the primary, relented, even as he avoided mentioning Bannon by name. “Attorney General Morrisey does not support these attacks on President Trump and his family,” he said in a statement.
—with additional reporting by Jackie Kucinich