Washington (CNN)He doesn’t demand the President hire his right-hand people. He doesn’t ask aspirants to genuflect en route to his palatial home. He didn’t even attend the inauguration.
Bernie Marcus isn’t getting much for his $7 million.
The co-founder and first CEO of Home Depot has none of the pizzazz of the famous Mercer, Adelson or Thiel families who used their sums to fund Donald Trump’s improbable White House victory and are as a result deeply intertwined with his political infrastructure. And for Marcus, the often overlooked second-largest donor behind casino magnate Sheldon Adelson to Trump’s efforts during the presidential campaign, that’s exactly how it should be.
In an age of activist donors who expect fealty from their chosen candidates, Marcus stands out as a throwback to a previous era of political billionaires with little desire to bring their own muscle to the game. Marcus appears all too content to operate on the margins of the White House, a reflection of both his shoulder shrug toward access and of his struggle to build a deep political operation that matches the depth of his pockets, according to interviews with more than a dozen people in his orbit.
“Bernie is not a guy that cares about ring-kissing or anything like that,” said Gary Rabine, a longtime Marcus friend who chats about politics and Trump with him. “He’s a no b-s guy, and I’m guessing that Bernie couldn’t care less whether he talks to him or not.”
Trump and Marcus are not friends. But observers of the relationship say his absence from Trump’s network is unusual for a Republican who gave so much to support Trump during the campaign and implored other donors to do similarly.
“He does not relish the game,” said Mike Leven, formerly Adelson’s chief deputy who now works for Marcus projects.
In fact, despite all his contributions, Leven described Marcus as not politically energized until this cycle.
“Bernie was never involved like Sheldon was involved,” he said, adding, “I don’t think it’s been fun for him at all.”
His aides have sought, sometimes against his wishes, to build his public profile and to have him make more demands. But the hands-off donor has expressed more eagerness to play a round of golf or spend time with his wife, Billi, who has encouraged her husband to spend less time on politics, according to a person with knowledge of the dynamic.
A low-key, high-dollar donor
In an hour-long interview last month, Marcus detailed to CNN his relationship with the President, which he said involves occasional emails, maybe a once-a-month phone call, and an impromptu encounter at Mar-a-Lago, which is 20 minutes away from his place in Florida. Marcus envisions himself as a political purist, with meager interest in the hand-to-hand combat of politics and little taste for flashy invitations.
“I’m one of the very few people that wants absolutely nothing from him. There’s nothing that he can do for me. Nothing. Zero,” Marcus said. “I’m living my own life. I don’t have time for this kind of politics.”
Senior Trump fundraisers recall Marcus being absent from intimate events prepared for them. Marcus, an avid golfer even as he turned 88 last week, has told his team recently that he has no interest in hitting the links with the commander-in-chief. They have never even dined together.
And members of the closest thing that Marcus has to a political operation, a coalition of CEOs called the Job Creators Network, say Marcus exerted almost zero pressure on the network to donate to Trump or boost him in the White House.
It’s a far cry from the legion of high-wattage donors who are routinely rewarded with treats like good seats at the inauguration, which the notorious homebody Marcus skipped.
“Other people that have done less than Bernie want to play golf with Trump. They want to have dinner with Trump. They go to the White House to see him,” said one Marcus intimate. “He is (88) years old. He doesn’t need his ego stroked.”
Occasionally gruff, relentlessly punctual and intensely private, Marcus cuts a different shape than his new ally. Marcus came to know Trump about a decade ago when he joined Trump’s golf club in Boca Raton, sources say, and Trump came to respect the Home Depot founder’s business acumen and wealth, which is estimated at $4 billion.
“That guy’s got real money,” Trump said of Marcus to one associate who recounted the conversation.
Marcus recalls Trump pursuing him to join his golf club about a decade ago, at one point ringing his office to personally pitch him. Despite a giddy assistant who couldn’t believe ‘The Apprentice’ star was on the line, Marcus wouldn’t take the call. He would later give in and join the club.
Trump was not Marcus’ first choice
When White House contenders began the invisible primary in 2015 to capture commitments from donors, Marcus decided early to side with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. That January he cut Bush’s super PAC a $1 million check, before later disbursing money to back Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Marcus, for his part, was incredulous about Trump and had long seen him as a “whimsical” character worthy of an eye-roll, friends say.
But Marcus watched Trump closely after Bush flamed out, assiduously avoiding anti-Trump super PACs and then coming out publicly as a Trump supporter in an op-ed that was meant for fellow GOP donors to see. Marcus’ team is confident that Trump himself saw it too.
“Republican leaders must listen to their customers, too — their voters — and they have spoken clearly,” he wrote for Real Clear Politics that spring. “Make no mistake, Republicans who refuse to stand behind their party’s nominee are electing Clinton, whether they cast their ballots for her or not.”
Two weeks later, Marcus had 15 minutes alone with Trump when he came to Atlanta for a fundraiser. It was then that Marcus shared with Trump research from American Crossroads, the donor network founded by Karl Rove, about how to repeal regulations via executive order, according to a person with knowledge of the interaction.
By the time of the Republican convention, Marcus cut a $3 million check to a pro-Trump super PAC, the first of several contributions he would give over the course of the race, including millions right after Trump became embroiled in sexual harassment allegations.
That October money would go to a group helmed by Rebekah Mercer, the director of a powerful New York political operation and a big-money influencer in Republican politics. Mercer and Marcus have struck something of a tenuous political alliance, even though they themselves are not personally close, according to people familiar with their relationship.
They did not know each other well before the campaign and Marcus said he had only met Rebekah Mercer once for an hour — and he thinks highly of her. But as members of the tiny club of early Trump donors, the families have formed something of a marriage of convenience.
Issue advocacy without the usual operation
Marcus does have a few pet issues. He is concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism on college campuses and said he plans to encourage Trump to pull federal funding from schools where it is rampant. He spoke privately with Trump last month at Mar-a-Lago about some regulations he considers onerous, including the Department of Labor’s overtime rules.
Unlike most other retail giants, Marcus says he supports the border adjustment tax — the controversial levy which Trump has now decided against — calling it a “sacrifice that has to be made.”
Jewish issues, not social ones, still animate him. Marcus has long been a key player at the hawkish Republican Jewish Coalition, an Adelson-funded group that has influenced his thinking on Israel and terrorism.
“He thinks about Sharia law more than your average billionaire,” said one Marcus associate.
But it is Marcus’ Job Creators Network, known as JCN, that is the closest thing he has to an actual political organization. Sources within the group however describe the founder and primary funder as very much detached from the network. Marcus tends to appear on JCN conference calls, but multiple members say they have never met Marcus personally, and that on the rare times he happens to speak, he espouses a boilerplate economic vision rather than whipping his friends into shape.
“I did not know he was a major donor,” said Ron Lazof, a Marcus friend, when asked about his efforts for Trump.
“I was intrigued by the fact that he was an early supporter of Trump,” said Blair Fensterstock, a JCN member who speaks with Marcus every few months. “We all knew he was supportive, but he was not very vocal.”
Other board members said that Marcus had never once talked about ways to politically boost Trump on the monthly calls — even though many of the CEOs were skeptical of Trump until the very end. In fact, Rabine said, it was Stephen Moore, the Heritage Foundation economist who advised Trump during the campaign — not Marcus, the group’s founder — who encouraged JCN members to back Trump.
“I always felt that if the Job Creators Network was going to be a powerhouse, it needed him to be active,” said Moore, who is a senior economics analyst for CNN. “It needs his gravitas behind it to work.”
Marcus did push for Andrew Puzder, a JCN member, to be nominated as Labor Secretary, but his name was withdrawn amid vetting issues. And Marcus says he was working his JCN network behind the scenes.
JCN has relatively minor asks of its conservative-leaning members: to donate a few thousand dollars a year, to put their names on letters or articles, and perhaps to testify before Congress once in a blue moon. It is in those ways quite dissimilar from the organizations created by billionaires Charles and David Koch, which bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from their supporters and offer them detailed briefings on their political activities at lavish conferences.
That doesn’t interest Marcus, who has told associates and aides that he has no interest in building a hefty political organization or a shadow party.
In fact, Marcus had harsh words for the Koch network, which have had high-profile fights with the Trump administration in its opening months.
“They’ve made life difficult for him,” Marcus said of the powerful siblings. “Why are you fighting him? I don’t get it. I don’t understand it, and I will probably never understand it.”
For their part, the Kochs have backed other pushes by the administration, including Trump’s attempts to cut taxes and roll back regulations.
Marcus traces his distaste for political combat to “very tough days” when he was seeking money for the Centers for Disease Control in the federal budget, meeting politicians who would later ask him for donations. He found the lobbying process toxic.
Nevertheless, Marcus is largely steered in the ways of politics by two hands: Steven Hantler, a former automotive lobbyist who has developed a close relationship with Republican strategist Karl Rove, and Alfredo Ortiz, who runs JCN and is a past executive at Kraft and Pepsi. Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign communications adviser, also pitches in. Caputo was recently asked by the House intelligence committee to provide documents and be interviewed about unrelated matters concerning its probe into Russian election interference.
Hantler often serves as Marcus’ ubiquitous stand-in at donor conferences or candlelit dinners, which has raised some whispers in finance circles about whether he ever speaks out of turn as well as questions about his authority to make commitments. Sources say he at times sees himself as less a gatekeeper to a donor and more as a donor himself.
“Bernie Marcus was not invited to many intimate events when we were together — all of us,” said one Trump fundraiser who is close with the family. “Hantler was going instead.”
Marcus’ political work has not been without controversy. Associates say he is uneasy in the public eye given his ties to Home Depot, which must serve Trump fans and foes alike and is wary of Marcus’ partisanship.
Leven said Marcus has been privately confronted on occasion at Jewish events in Atlanta for defending Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, who has been attacked by critics as anti-Semitic.
“Why are you defending Bannon?” Marcus found himself being asked.
Marcus financed some of Bannon’s movies and said he had known him for about seven years. When Bannon was under attack at the outset of Trump’s transition, Marcus put out a rare statement declaring the controversy a “shonda,” or travesty.
By the end of the campaign, Bannon had convinced Marcus to leave Atlanta and Florida to see one Trump rally up close in Colorado, flying with the President, riding in the motorcade and seeing Trump’s movement firsthand in an experience Marcus describes as transformative.
“He’s never had such access to a president,” said one person close to Marcus.
But as of this month, he has yet to even visit the White House.