Sam Bankman-Fried, Crypto-Republican?

He was lauded for his major donations to Democrats, but now he says he was secretly giving to Republicans in roughly equal measure.

Illustration of Sam Bankman-Fried, the U.S. Capitol, and Benjamin Franklin
Lam Yik / Bloomberg / Getty; Fotosearch / Getty; The Atlantic

Sam Bankman-Fried tried to warn us.

“Everyone should always be skeptical of things like this. Right?” the then–cryptocurrency star told NBC News’s Chuck Todd in a September interview about his generous political donations, which he framed as not self-interested. Unlike much of his advice about money, this suggestion was wise.

Bankman-Fried became prominent in political circles for his donations to liberal causes, including nearly $37 million to Democrats and progressive groups in the 2022 cycle. Even more notable, he vowed to spend as much as $1 billion in the 2024 election cycle, in part to defeat Donald Trump if necessary. He was a high-profile acolyte of the effective-altruism movement, which overlaps heavily with the technocratic left.

When his crypto exchange, FTX, imploded last month—taking with it his $16 billion paper fortune—it seemed like a major blow to Democrats’ future fundraising prospects. But as people try to piece together how SBF and FTX ended up here, that concern seems potentially off base.

First, we know now that Bankman-Fried’s pledge of future giving was as good as the paper it was printed on, or perhaps as good as a balance sheet with entries including “hidden, poorly internally labled ‘fiat@’ account.” Second, the hype around FTX money flowing to Democrats was always overstated. Third, Bankman-Fried has said in interviews that he personally actually gave nearly as much to GOP candidates and causes as to Democratic ones, using dark-money vehicles. That claim is impossible to independently verify (dark money being, well, dark money), and Bankman-Fried’s word can’t really be trusted (see above), but it all points to a different picture from the one of a great Democratic donor laid low. It’s possible that Bankman-Fried was in fact—and pun intended—a crypto-Republican.

As FTX’s fortunes soared, so did contributions by its employees to political causes. In the 2020 election, according to Open Secrets, FTX employees gave $7 million total. In 2022, that rose to more than $70 million. Bankman-Fried was by far the biggest donor, giving about $40 million—all but $2.8 million to left-of-center causes—making him the second-largest Democratic donor, behind only George Soros. FTX’s engineering director, Nishad Singh, gave another $8 million to progressives. But Ryan Salame, another executive, gave almost $24 million to Republican and conservative causes, somewhat counterbalancing the giving to the left. Overall, according to Open Secrets, FTX donations to candidates were very slightly GOP-leaning, although contributions to individual politicians were only a small slice of the $70 million.

Now, on his weird post-collapse apology tour, Bankman-Fried claims that was not the whole picture. In an interview with Tiffany Fong this week, he said he gave roughly the same amount to Republicans and was the party’s second- or third-largest donor as well, mostly in the primary. But those donations were hidden, he claimed: “Despite Citizens United being literally the highest-profile Supreme Court case of the decade and the thing everyone talks about with campaign finance, for some reason, in practice, no one can possibly fathom the idea that someone actually gave dark. All my Republican donations were dark.”

The reason was cynical, if realistic: “Reporters freak the fuck out if you donate to a Republican,” he told Fong. “They’re all secretly liberal, and I didn’t want to have that fight, so I made all the Republican ones dark.” One wonders who at this late stage is not privy to the liberal lean of much of the press, but the more operative characteristic of reporters in this case is gullibility: Just as the financial press was credulous about FTX’s prowess, the political press was too quick to believe that Bankman-Fried’s giving was all in the open.

Bankman-Fried’s Republican giving is impossible to verify, since the whole point of such donations is that they can’t be traced. And Bankman-Fried isn’t a reliable source, but it seems like an odd thing to lie about now, as he spills other embarrassing truths. And it fits well with some other curious statements he’s made in interviews since the collapse. During a chat interview, Vox’s Kelsey Piper asked Bankman-Fried whether his very public commitment to ethical behavior was “mostly a front.” “Yeah,” he replied. “I mean that’s not *all* of it. But it’s a lot.” He described his po-faced comments in the past as being part of “this dumb game we woke westerners play where we say all the right shiboleths [sic] and so everyone likes us.”

That points to the hard truth about his donations too: Although Bankman-Fried claimed to be acting out of lofty motives such as stopping Trump, he appears to have been more invested in trying to shape favorable regulation. Like many tech giants, FTX concluded that more regulation in its industry was, whether desirable or not, inevitable, so the wisest course was to be proactive in shaping regulations that would be favorable.

In September, when Chuck Todd asked Bankman-Fried if he wasn’t simply out there trying to influence politicians, he demurred: “I’m not going to tell people that they should give anyone a free pass on it. What I would say is look at the evidence; try and trace out what’s happening.”

The answer is hilarious in retrospect: Like the smooth operator he was, Bankman-Fried starts out with an apparent admission against interest, gamely admitting that he deserves skepticism. Then he effortlessly pivots to telling people to follow the money, knowing full well (assuming his more recent claims are true) that there is no way for them to accurately do so. “People aren’t taking me at my word, and I understand that,” he said—though he understood better than they did why they shouldn’t.

Bankman-Fried stuck out, before November, as a prominent liberal billionaire, which is a lonely position. Quartz analyzed donations by billionaires in the 2022 cycle and found that only six of the top 20, including Soros and Bankman-Fried, leaned left (although Soros’s $128 million tab was nearly double the next closest: that of the Republican donors Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein).

Bankman-Fried’s belated claims of roughly equal giving echo the realism that Trump displayed during the 2016 Republican primary. When confronted by his rivals with his past donations to Democrats, he didn’t flinch. “I gave to many people before this,” he said. “When they call, I give. And you know what, when I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me.”

This is hardly news to most Americans, but it’s still a little bracing to hear players like these men say it out loud. Bankman-Fried is right to point out, both explicitly and by implication, that donors are taken too much at their word, and that dark giving is often forgotten and poorly understood. As for the big gaps in Democratic and Republican coffers that FTX’s collapse leaves, they’re probably fleeting. Some wealthy person will have an interest in getting politicians to do something, which means they’ll be more than happy to fill in the holes—whether with noisy donations or quiet ones.