The trials of SBF and DJT: Trump isn’t clean on crypto but he did warn us about it

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The New York fraud trial of Sam Bankman-Fried kicked off this week. The 31-year-old former crypto billionaire faces two substantive counts of wire fraud, for acts allegedly perpetrated against the customers of FTX, the crypto-futures exchange he founded, and five related counts of conspiracy. If convicted on all charges, he faces up to 110 years in prison. As fate would have it, his case is being heard a few buildings away from where one Donald J Trump sits on trial for fraud. Like the 45th president – DJT, if you will – SBF has a tough row to hoe. Even if Bankman-Fried is acquitted, he stares at another trial, slated for March 2024, on five more counts of fraud. The men’s paths remain entwined. At that same moment, Trump will be both deep into the Republican primary and likely standing trial in connection with January 6. Furthermore, filings show that as of early August, Trump held $2.8m in a cryptocurrency wallet, with as much as $500,000 in ethereum, a cryptocurrency. On top of that, his collection of non-fungible tokens generated $4.87m in licensing fees. The NFTs are a collection of virtual trading cards, featuring illustrations of Trump as superhero, cowboy or astronaut. Really. Not that Trump has always been in favour of crypto. “I am not a fan of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which are not money, and whose value is highly volatile and based on thin air,” he tweeted in 2019. Sound familiar? Prosecutors say Bankman-Fried relied on smoke and mirrors to gain access to political power. According to his indictment, he used customers’ assets “to lobby Congress and regulatory agencies to support legislation and regulation he believed would make it easier for FTX to continue to accept customer deposits and grow”. He is also alleged to have “misappropriated customer money to help fund over $100m in political contributions in advance of the 2022 election”, while seeking to “conceal the source of the funds used for the contributions”. Trump and his party, however, were not the chief recipients of such largesse. Bankman-Fried tended to donate to Democrats. Conservatives were therefore annoyed. They sought to portray Bankman-Fried as a leftist, on top of being a crook. Once upon a time, though, he met Ron DeSantis for no apparent reason other than the fact Florida’s hard-right governor wanted to meet. Now, as a presidential candidate, DeSantis has emerged as a crypto advocate. His campaign continues to sink, however. We know more about such meetings now, thanks in large part to Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon, a new book by Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball, The Big Short and other bestsellers about how capitalism works – and doesn’t. For instance, Jerry Jones, a Republican and owner of the Dallas Cowboys NFL team, showed up at a Beverly Hills party also attended by Hillary Clinton, a passel of Kardashians, Doug Emhoff, the husband of the vice-president, Kamala Harris – and Bankman-Fried. Bankman-Fried had allure. Exactly why continues to puzzle political players. His money doesn’t explain everything. But it does shed light on plenty. In summer 2022, Lewis writes, Bankman-Fried met Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, with the goal of stopping Trump-aligned extremists snagging Republican nominations. It was a high-level meeting – high enough that for one evening, Bankman-Fried even swapped his beloved cargo shorts for a suit. “At that moment, Sam was planning to give $15m to $30m to McConnell to defeat the Trumpier candidates in the Senate races,” Lewis writes. Bankman-Fried also explored paying Trump $5bn not to run in 2024, Lewis writes. Nothing came of that. Now, as Bankman-Fried sits in court, McConnell, 81, remains in the minority, his health in public decline. But McConnell remains a reliable soldier, his hold on his caucus unchanged. The crypto industry, meanwhile, scrambles to salvage its image from the damage done by Bankman-Fried. “The idea that one man and one company dictated an entire industry was frustrating for a lot of people,” Kara Calvert, head of US policy at Coinbase, recently told Politico. “At the end of the day, the industry is so broad-based. Nobody wants to let the whole future of technological development in the United States be dictated by a criminal.” Bankman-Fried has not been convicted of anything. But it does seem extraordinary that he rose so high so fast, and that so many political leaders were so eager to help. “From the beginning, I had thought that crypto was pretty dumb,” wrote Zeke Faux, an investigative reporter for Bloomberg and a fellow at New America, in Number Go Up, his unflattering take on crypto and Bankman-Fried. “And it turned out to be even dumber than I imagined. “There was no mass movement to actually use crypto in the real world … from El Salvador to Switzerland to the Philippines, all I saw were scams, fraud, and half-baked schemes.” In September 2021, El Salvador made bitcoin legal tender, the first country to do so. The rightwing Heritage Foundation ranks the country’s economy the 114th most free. Freedom House, more mainstream, rates El Salvador partly free. It’s not a flattering ad for crypto. In the US, major advocates include Eric Adams, the mayor of New York; Robert Kennedy Jr, a conspiracy theorist and likely third-party presidential candidate; and Cynthia Lummis, the Wyoming Republican senator who opposed certifying Joe Biden’s 2020 win just hours after the attack on Congress. Such names should tell us something – as should Trump’s crypto holdings mentioned above. But anyone who still believes might also care to recall Trump’s earlier words. “Unregulated crypto assets can facilitate unlawful behavior, including drug trade and other illegal activity,” he tweeted, more than four years ago. “We have only one real currency in the USA … it is by far the most dominant currency anywhere in the world, and it will always stay that way. It is called the United States Dollar!” Strange as it seems to say it, the man had a point.

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