Natural History Museum Catching Flak over Breitbart Funder’s Role

BY PAUL SCHINDLER | An activist group formed this past November is criticizing the role that Rebekah Mercer — a prominent supporter of President Donald Trump whose family foundation has donated millions of dollars to climate change deniers — as a board member at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).

The group, Revolting Lesbians, is planning a January 21 protest outside the museum and is also drawing up a letter to each member of the AMNH board calling for the resignation of Mercer, whose family, according to Politico, has given the museum $2.9 million.

“We think it is outrageous that someone who pours millions of dollars into climate change denial is sitting on the board of a preeminent scientific institution in New York City,” Jo Macellaro, one of the organizers of the January 21 action, said in an email message.

Rebekah Mercer, major donor to climate change denial groups, on a leading city science institution's board

Mercer, who lives on the Upper West Side, is the daughter of Robert Mercer, whom Forbes magazine has identified as among the nation’s 25 highest-earning hedge fund managers, and she directs the Mercer Family Foundation, which is a major supporter of conservative causes. Newsmax Media owner Christopher Ruddy, who is a close confidante of President Donald Trump, has called Mercer “the First Lady of the alt-right.”

Last spring, the Washington Post reported on the father and daughter’s participation at a Heartland Institute conference in Washington, where speakers ripped into the overwhelming scientific consensus surrounding climate change and applauded the Trump administration’s hobbling of the Environmental Protection Agency. According to the Post, the family’s foundation has given more than $5 million to the Heartland Institute since 2008. The Heartland conference received financial backing from other groups that the Mercer Family Foundation also supports, including the Media Research Center, the Heritage Foundation, and the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, the Post reported.

A graphic developed by Revolting Lesbians for their January 21 protest of Rebekah Mercer’s role as a board member at the American Museum of Natural History. | Graphic courtesy of Revolting Lesbians

Desmog, a website that bills itself as “clearing the PR pollution that clouds climate science,” reported that Robert Mercer gave $1.25 million to the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, which is led by Art Robinson, a biochemist who formerly taught at the University of California at San Diego and has become a leading climate change denier. The Oregonian reported that the elder Mercer also spent millions to support several challenges Robinson launched against Democratic Congressmember Peter DeFazio.

According to Politico, the Mercers have also invested $10 million in Breitbart News and $5 million in Cambridge Analytica, the data research firm that has figured prominently in reporting on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. In a rare public statement last week, Rebekah Mercer denounced Steve Bannon for stinging comments he made about the Trump White House in Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” and days later Bannon was forced out of his role as executive chairman of Breitbart.

The low public profile that both Mercer and her father have consistently maintained personally has enabled them to defy precise characterization, though the millions of dollars in foundation expenditures and multiples of that in political spending — $25 million in the 2016 election alone, first for Texas Senator Ted Cruz and later for Trump, according to USA Today — paint a picture of them as among the most lavish of right-wing patrons.

In its story about the Heartland conference, however, the Washington Post noted that the Mercer Foundation, in 2014 and 2015, gave $500,000 to Berkeley Earth, a research group founded by physicist Richard Muller, who was once a climate change skeptic but since 2012 has argued that human activity is at the foundation of global warming trends. Muller described Robert Mercer as “very open” to his group’s research.

On the Facebook page calling for the January 21 protest at AMNH, Revolting Lesbians argue that their research indicates that the total commitment by the Mercer Family Foundation to climate change denial amounts to $22 million. The Heartland Institute, it notes, bragged in promoting last spring’s conference that it “persuaded Trump that man-made global warming is not a crisis.”

Explaining the objectives of the planned protest, the group’s Macellaro wrote, “Our main goals for this action (and follow-up actions) are to expose Rebekah Mercer and make the general public aware of who she is and what she does (including, of course, her role in getting Trump into the White House), and ultimately to have her removed from the board of the museum.”

The founders of Revolting Lesbians includes longtime activists from ACT UP, the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization that launched the battle to open up the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade to LGBTQ participation, and the Lesbian Avengers — such as Maxine Wolfe, Anne Maguire, and Marie Honan — as well as from Trump resistance groups such as Rise and Resist. Revolting Lesbians plan to march in the January 20 Women’s March protesting the anniversary of Trump’s inauguration, one day prior to their action at AMNH.

A museum spokesperson, in an emailed message, wrote, “At the Museum, decisions about research, exhibitions, and public programs are made by scientists and educators. That is not a role that donors or Trustees take on.”

The museum is currently engaged in a major expansion with the construction of the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation. The project has drawn some community opposition because it encroaches on a small portion of the surrounding Theodore Roosevelt Park. In a 2015 op-ed in Gay City News’ sister publication Manhattan Express, City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal championed the Gilder Project, writing that it would “impact our ability to understand some of the most critical issues that face our world, such as climate change.”

A message left at a phone number in Rebekah Mercer’s name was not returned.