When Robert F. Kennedy Jr. held a swanky fundraiser for his presidential campaign last month in the upscale Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, much of the news focused on the anti-vaxxer and conspiracy theorist‘s celebrity guest: musician Eric Clapton. The legendary guitarist—who has promoted vaccine disinformation and who has a history of racist remarks—played for a crowd that raised a whopping $2.2 million for the Kennedy scion, who has been politically disowned by much of his family and who appears to be on the verge of shifting his Democratic presidential bid to an independent run. Also present was Stephen Stills of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, who subsequently released a statement noting he still backs President Joe Biden and attended only to support Clapton. Less attention was paid to the hosts of the event who helped Kennedy Jr. haul in this pile of cash at their gated compound: Aubrey and Joyce Chernick.
In recent years, the Chernicks have been generous donors to Republicans and pro-Trump political action committees. They also in the past have financed Democratic candidates, conservative outfits, and groups cited as Islamophobic.
Aubrey, who in March donated $3,300 to Kennedy Jr., is a Canadian-born billionaire tech entrepreneur and philanthropist. He sold his first venture, a software firm, to IBM for $641 million in 2004. He now runs a cybersecurity firm called Celerium.
According to the Federal Election Commission, in June he he gave the maximum contribution of $6,600 to the presidential campaign of Governor Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.). Last year, he maxed out to Dr. Oz when the Republican TV doctor ran for Senate in Pennsylvania. He donated $2,900 to Harriet Hageman, who successfully challenged Rep. Liz Cheney in the Republican primary for Wyoming’s lone House seat. He donated $5,800 to the reelection campaign of Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and kicked in another $17,500 to political action committees associated with Scott.
His wife Joyce has been a more prolific political donor. She, too, has backed the presidential bids of DeSantis and Kennedy Jr.. Last year, she contributed $2,900 to the New Journey PAC, a conservative group founded by an associate of Rush Limbaugh that focuses on Black voters and that endorsed Trump in 2020, and she gave $5,000 to Make America Great Again, Again, which was set up in 2021 as the primary super PAC for Trump. (It has been folded into a new PAC called Make America Great Again Inc.)
For the recent midterm elections, she donated $2,900 to Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and another $2,900 to his Take Back the House 2022 PAC. She also poured $10,000 into Right Women PAC, a group run by Debra Meadows, the wife of Mark Meadows, the former GOP congressman and onetime chief of staff who was indicted in Georgia on election interference charges. Right Women PAC helped fund the campaigns of pro-Trump women candidates, including Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert. It employed Cleta Mitchell, an attorney who aided Trump in his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Like her husband, Joyce donated $23,300 to Tim Scott’s campaign and PACs.
Aubrey and Joyce have not always been GOP-only donors. In the 1990s and 2000s, they supported Democrats (Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, congresswoman Jane Harman) and Republicans (Mitt Romney, John McCain, Mitch McConnell, and Newt Gingrich). After 2014, they stopped making donations to federal candidates. They resumed in 2021, now supporting just Republicans and conservative candidates and PACs.
The Chernicks have supported on-the-right operations outside of electoral politics. In 2005, Aubrey was a key investor in Pajamas Media, a website that started off with an ideologically eclectic jumble of bloggers but that soon became a right-wing outlet that featured a hawkish stance on Israel. (I was on the original editorial advisory board for Pajamas Media but departed as it lurched toward the right.) In its conservative iteration, Pajamas Media, which became known as PJ Media, featured a host of far-right conservatives, such as Tammy Bruce, and dispatched Joe “The Plumber” Wurzelbacher as a war correspondent to Israel. As one of its founders, Charles F. Johnson, a blogger and web designer, told the Daily Beast, within years it had become “one of those cookie-cutter right-wing websites.” In 2019, Salem Media acquired PJ Media and added it to the company’s stable of conservative sites, including Townhall, HotAir, and RedState.
Aubrey and Joyce Chernick have been, respectively, president and vice chair of the Fairbrook Foundation. In a 2011 report titled Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America, the Center for American Progress, a liberal group, noted that between 2004 and 2009 the Chernicks’ foundation contributed $1.5 million to what CAP termed Islamophobic organizations. It reported, “Among the recipients: ACT! For America, receiving $125,000; the Center for Security Policy ($66,700); the David Horowitz Freedom Center ($618,500); the Investigative Project on Terrorism, ($25,000); Jihad Watch ($253,250); and the Middle East Forum ($410,000).”
Jihad Watch is a website run by Robert Spencer, a leading anti-Islam activist who has claimed that Islam is an inherently violent religion and that radical Islam is subverting the United States. In 2009, Politico reported that Joyce Chernick provided a majority of the $920,000 the right-wing David Horowitz Freedom Center gave to Jihad Watch.
In an interview with Mother Jones, Aubrey Chernick would not comment on the fundraiser for Kennedy Jr. or even confirm that he and his wife hosted it at their home. But he did discuss the couple’s support of RFK Jr. He first explained it by blasting the Democratic establishment for “going after Bobby” and saying that “the country needs some alternatives.” Asked if he and Joyce were drawn to Kennedy Jr. due to the candidate’s opposition to vaccination, he replied, “Yeah, we’re a little bit—we didn’t like the cancelation elements [regarding anti-vaccination material during the Covid pandemic].” He added, “There wasn’t good information about the side effects of vaccination.” He remarked that he was “not happy about” Trump’s Operation Warp Speed, the public–private partnership that facilitated and accelerated the development, manufacturing, and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. (A source who knows the Chernicks says that the couple have said they are opposed to mask-wearing and being vaccinated for Covid.)
Is it odd that DeSantis supporters would give money to Kennedy Jr.? “In their own way, both are courageous for freedom,” Chernick insisted. Citing DeSantis’ response to Covid in Florida, he praised the governor for doing “his own research into vaccinations” and becoming “his own person” on this issue. DeSantis, Chernick said, “was criticized but he had the courage to go ahead. Isn’t that a commonality with Bobby Kennedy?”
In an email to Mother Jones, a spokesperson for Kennedy Jr. declined to say how the fundraiser at the Chernick residence came about. Instead, the spokesperson commented, “Team Kennedy is very grateful for the support of Joyce and Aubrey… We are grateful to all our contributors, be they Democrats, Republicans, or Independents.”
Kennedy Jr.’s run against President Joe Biden has received other Republican big-money support. Of the $16 million raised (through July) by a super PAC backing his campaign, at least $5 million came from Timothy Mellon, a longtime GOP donor. (Mellon donated $1.5 million to a Trump-aligned organization in 2022.) Another $500,000 was donated to this pro-Kennedy super PAC last year by a tech entrepreneur and vaccination opponent named Mark Gorton, a onetime supporter of progressive causes who recently contributed to DeSantis and Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.). Whether it’s because of Kennedy’s war on vaccination or his potential to discomfort Biden and the Democratic Party—or perhaps both—the Chernicks and other GOP donors have fueled the long-shot campaign of a candidate with the most hallowed name in Democratic politics.
If Kennedy decides to flee the Democratic race and run as an independent—or perhaps as a Libertarian Party candidate—his appeal to pro-Trump Republicans could lessen. Recent polling gives no clear indication of whether his presence on the general election ballot (which might not occur in every state) would be advantageous for either Trump or Biden. But he will likely retain the ability to pull in significant campaign cash, even though he’s an antivax propagandist and conspiracy theorist—or because of it.