Bannon Buys Into Bitcoin

WASHINGTON — Steve Bannon, 10 months removed from the job of chief strategist to President Donald Trump and five months after his ouster from the arch-conservative news site Breitbart News, is betting that bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies can disrupt banking the way Trump disrupted American politics.

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WASHINGTON — Steve Bannon, 10 months removed from the job of chief strategist to President Donald Trump and five months after his ouster from the arch-conservative news site Breitbart News, is betting that bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies can disrupt banking the way Trump disrupted American politics.

Bannon won’t reveal very much about his cryptocurrency plans — he worries that the controversy that comes with his name could have a bad impact on projects just getting off the ground.

But he has had private meetings with cryptocurrency investors and hedge funds where he has discussed working on so-called initial coin offerings through his investment business, Bannon & Co. And in his first interview on the topic, he said he had a “good stake” in bitcoin.

In a small gathering of academics at Harvard University this spring, he even floated the possibility of creating a new virtual currency, the “deplorables coin.” The name is a nod to Hillary Clinton’s description of Trump’s supporters as “a basket of deplorables.”

The work that Bannon is doing in the virtual currency realm is still in its early stages. But he has expressed an interest in helping entrepreneurs and even countries looking to create their own cryptocurrencies — generally outside the United States.

The offbeat world of cryptocurrencies has drawn interest from all sorts over the last few years, from drug dealers and scam artists to the biggest companies in Silicon Valley and the most staid institutions of Wall Street.

It is not a shocking place for Bannon, 64, to plot his re-emergence. Cryptocurrencies have many of the characteristics that drew him into Tea Party politics: They break old rules, they exist on the periphery, and they pose a challenge to the powerful figures and institutions that have long called the shots.

“It’s disruptive populism,” Bannon said in the interview, at his Capitol Hill townhouse in Washington. “It takes control back from central authorities. It’s revolutionary.” Even though he has no formal ties to the business anymore, Bannon still refers to his townhouse as the “Breitbart Embassy,” the nickname given to it because so much of the site’s business was done there.

While Breitbart editors and writers no longer linger at all hours inside the embassy, remnants of the website remain in Breitbart mementos hanging from the wall and coffee mugs with the signature block B logo strewn about the kitchen. Bannon still accepts a steady stream of visitors who provide him intelligence and gossip from the conservative circles he once commanded. But these days he is just as likely to be convening meetings there on his new financial venture.

He won’t talk about a possible return to politics someday. His messy rupture with the White House over critical comments he made in Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury” about colleagues and Donald Trump Jr. is still too fresh. But he does see a political component to virtual currency.

“It was pretty obvious to me that unless you got somehow control over your currency, all these political movements were going to be beholden to who controlled the currency,” Bannon said.

His vision for virtual currency has elements of his unorthodox ideology. He sounds like both an avowed libertarian who wants government out of his life and a progressive who wants Wall Street held to account when he insists that virtual currencies can help citizens take back power from the central banks that “debase your currency” and make citizens “slaves to debt.”

His focus on creating new digital tokens, which are usually offered through initial coin offerings, puts him squarely in the edgiest, most scam-filled slice of the cryptocurrency business.

New companies have raised billions through these ICOs, which allow them to bypass regulators and other middlemen and go straight to investors. That has also led to plenty of scams, and authorities throughout the world are starting to crack down.

Bannon’s involvement in cryptocurrencies has raised eyebrows among people trying to move the business toward the mainstream. They fear he will further cement the technology’s reputation as a plaything of fringe elements.

“It almost seems like a natural progression for a man who gained prominence by shoveling out unfounded conspiracies to now shilling complex technology and financial instruments to an unsophisticated investing public,” said Colin Platt, a cryptocurrency researcher and adviser.

Bitcoin are stored and moved around a global network of computers that allows for the system to work without relying on a central authority. That lack of oversight has made bitcoin a favorite method of payment for online drug markets and ransom schemes.

Bitcoin has been popular with the alt-right and nationalist communities because it has provided them with a way to receive online donations and evade restrictions put on them by banks and payment companies. PayPal and Apple Pay, for example, shut down the accounts of some right-wing groups last year.

Cryptocurrencies are also gaining mainstream interest. Goldman Sachs, where Bannon worked in the 1980s, recently said it was creating a bitcoin trading operation. The parent company of the New York Stock Exchange has been looking at building an exchange for digital tokens. And Facebook has put top executives on a project exploring use of the technology.

These big companies are generally trying to take the technology away from its radical political roots. But Bannon is hoping to embrace those roots. “Control of the currency,” he said, “is control of everything.”

Timothy Lewis, a hedge fund manager who met with Bannon to talk about cryptocurrencies last month, said he was impressed with the degree to which Bannon had delved into the details of the technology and the challenges it faces.

“I didn’t know what to expect going in, but he had clearly done his homework,” said Lewis, who is a co-founder of the Ikigai hedge fund, which invests in cryptocurrency projects. He said they had talked about the laws governing new cryptocurrencies and a few initial coin offerings that had recently raised money from investors.

Bannon is particularly interested in the possibility that countries could create coins tied to national wealth — an Italian coin tied to marble deposits in the country, for instance. He found his way into the virtual currency universe through Brock Pierce, a former child actor who appeared in films like “The Mighty Ducks” before starting a company in Hong Kong that sold the virtual gold that players use in the video game “World of Warcraft.”

The company, Internet Gaming Entertainment, or IGE, brought on Bannon as vice chairman in 2005 to help Pierce expand the business and deal with legal threats.

Bannon credits the company with introducing him to the ranks of disaffected young men who gathered online around video games, and who became pillars of the alt-right movement.

Since leaving IGE in 2007, Pierce has become involved with a wide array of virtual currency projects, including an effort to create a cryptocurrency enclave in Puerto Rico that takes advantage of the island’s low taxes, and a new virtual currency known as EOS, which has raised over $3 billion.

Bannon said he would have gotten involved with Pierce and cryptocurrencies back in 2016 if the Trump campaign hadn’t intervened.

Pierce’s big claims for cryptocurrencies — and a recent turn toward new age spiritualism — have made him a target for critics. John Oliver, on his HBO comedy show, recently held up Pierce as an emblem of the bombast that floats around the virtual currency community. After the segment, the company that created EOS said Pierce had left the company.

Bannon is not bothered by the mockery. Other causes he has taken on have worked out well despite low expectations.

“These guys are visionaries,” he said.

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