Sam Bankman-Fried sure has had a lot to say for someone who is the target of multiple criminal investigations. On Tuesday, YouTuber Tiffany Fong posted an edited 23-minute video of a November 16 phone call she had with the former CEO of bankrupt crypto exchange FTX — the same day he gave a particularly revealing interview to Vox reporter Kelsey Piper that was instrumental in tearing down the altruistic image of himself that he had projected for years. The scope of the call is fairly shallow — Fong says she’s not a journalist, and this was her “first time interviewing literally anyone, ever” — and she told another interviewer that portions had been cut at Bankman-Fried’s request. Still, Fong caught him at a moment when he still seemed stunned by the world having turned on him so quickly after he had collapsed his own $32 billion exchange. “It’s interesting how much everything matters,” he told her.
The interview is most revealing in showing how Bankman-Fried has been able to craft his persona, particularly through the media, and how political donations played a major role in that. Bankman-Fried became well known as the second-largest donor to Democrats prior to the 2022 election, behind George Soros. But he says he donated about equally to Republicans, just using dark-money groups that obscure the source of that funding. (As of right now, the data to prove this isn’t publicly available, though it may come to light during bankruptcy proceedings. Still, FEC filings show FTX donated $1 million to a political committee controlled by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that backed Republicans.) “Despite Citizens United being literally the highest-profile Supreme Court of the decade, and the thing everyone talks about when they talk about campaign finance, for some reason, in practice, no one can possibly fathom that someone, in practice, actually gave dark. So all my Republican donations were dark,” he said. “The reason was not for regulatory reasons. It’s because reporters freak the fuck out if you donate to Republicans, they’re all super-liberal, and I didn’t want to have that fight.”
Still, Bankman-Fried largely controls the interview. At one point, Fong asks him about the alleged “back door” that his top lieutenant, Gary Wang, is reported to have programmed into FTX’s code, allowing Bankman-Fried’s hedge fund, Alameda Research, to quietly trade with customer funds. She mischaracterizes the Reuters story that broke that news and asks Bankman-Fried about personally building that feature, allowing him to deny that he coded it — something he was never accused of. Instead, he blames a vague accounting error, a mislabeled account, and says that those two mistakes made him think his hedge fund was more solvent than it really was. He says that a fund offered him $4 billion “eight minutes” after he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in Delaware, though doesn’t specify who. Then he lambasts the media for chasing clicks by writing about the apparent polyamorous subplot playing out in his clique of FTX executives living together in Albany Marina in the Bahamas. “We as a society have, in my opinion, in my humble opinion — I spent about enough time this week trying to figure out whether anyone in living in Albany was polyamorous. I feel like I’ve answered that question a lot, and the answer is too boring for people to believe.” At this, Fong laughs, and she doesn’t actually get him to answer the question of whether he and his top lieutenants were in sexual relationships. Of course, this question does matter, as sexual relationships with billionaires tend to come loaded with lopsided displays of power and questions of consent — something even Elizabeth Holmes tried, and failed, to use in her defense in her own fraud trial.
It’s worth considering why this interview happened. Bankman-Fried has given these apparently more honest assessments to two people he didn’t see as traditional reporters — Piper was a fellow traveler in the Effective Altruism movement, and he said he didn’t think his DMs to her would be published. Fong laughs at Bankman-Fried’s sarcastic comments throughout and doesn’t press him for details on the supposed accounting problems or his knowledge of the back door.
There is a classic PR strategy of parsing out small and relatively benign details — for example, unverifiable assertions about donating to Republicans — as a way of obfuscating a much larger and more dangerous matter. What happened to FTX customers’ money is, in Bankman-Fried’s own words, the “boring story” that no one wants to talk about — but, of course, that isn’t true. It is the question at the heart of whether prosecutors can prove an intent to defraud potentially more than a million depositors and investors. Surprisingly or not, Bankman-Fried doesn’t seem especially interested in discussing it.