At the end of January 2017, days after Donald Trump’s inauguration, I sat in a busy Pret a Manger sandwich bar in central London, a stone’s throw from the mother of parliaments, and flicked through snapshots of Donald Trump on a mobile phone.
The phone belonged to Andy Wigmore, an associate of Nigel Farage’s, the long-time leader of Britain’s insurgent anti-Europe campaign and latterly a friend and supporter of the man he refers to on his frequent appearances on Fox TV as “The Donald.” Wigmore, a businessman who has a sideline as a trade envoy to Belize, a Central American country known, among other things, for its sugar cane and money-laundering, had taken a photo of Farage and Trump standing in front of Trump’s golden elevator a month earlier. The photo went viral almost instantly.
This was Trump’s first meeting with a foreign politician, the man he called “Mr. Brexit,” and Wigmore was there for the ride alongside his business partner, a previously unremarkable insurance entrepreneur from Bristol in the west of England named Arron Banks. In the run-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum, Banks had given upward of £8 million to Nigel Farage’s successful Leave.EU campaign, an act that overnight had made him Britain’s biggest ever political donor.
Collectively, Farage, Banks, and Wigmore refer to themselves as “the Bad Boys of Brexit,” the title of Arron Banks’s memoir and a nod to Britain’s habit of celebrating the buffoonish provocateur (see also, Boris Johnson). The book makes clear that Nigel Farage, Arron Banks, and Andy Wigmore were the clueless outsiders who somehow triumphed over both the establishment and the odds to take Britain outside the European Union.
As French and Japanese tourists ebbed and flowed around us, Wigmore swiped through the photos. There was The Donald in his suite at Trump Tower. There was Raheem Kassam, a polemicist who had bounced between stints working for Farage and editing the British outpost of Breitbart News and who has now graduated to a position as handmaid-in-chief to Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon. Another image was of Kellyanne Conway—“a very old and dear friend,” according to Wigmore. And then he sat back and told me about all the clever things they’d done with data during the Brexit campaign, and how it was a business named Cambridge Analytica that taught them how.
It was because of Cambridge Analytica that I’d asked to meet Wigmore, though I knew very little about the company at that stage, or indeed him. Neither he nor Banks were widely known then—though, nearly two years on, they’ve gone on to achieve something like notoriety. At the time, Wigmore was a friendly, convivial figure who’d said he’d be happy to talk to me about how Leave.EU had leveraged technology in revolutionary ways.
My interest was accidental. I had mentioned Cambridge Analytica’s work for both Trump and the Leave campaign in an article about Google in December 2016. And I’d been increasingly baffled by a series of letters from the firm vociferously claiming it had done no such work, despite the ample evidence for it all across the Internet. Why the denials? It made no sense. I’d asked Wigmore if he would meet. And he was happy to set the record straight.
“Cambridge Analytica did work for us, yes,” he said. “We just didn’t pay them. They were happy to help.” Help? They had “the same goals. We were part of the same family.” Farage and Bannon—a vice president at the firm—were close, he explained. Why wouldn’t they help?
In 2014, Steve Bannon set up Breitbart News in London with the specific intention of helping and supporting Farage’s campaign to take Britain out of the EU. The money came from Robert Mercer, the hedge-fund billionaire who would go on to become the single biggest donor to the Trump campaign. And Cambridge Analytica was another star in their firmament. Of course, they would help. Brexit, Wigmore explained, was the “petri dish” for Trump.