MAGA Opportunism and the FTX collapse
How MAGA and the Kremlin manufactured a reason to stop sending aid to Ukraine, excuse their poor performance in the midterms and justify upcoming House investigations of Democrats.
It started small at first with a tweet from Zerohedge, a long-standing and well-known pusher of pro-Kremlin talking points. The tweet pointed to fraud connected to the Ukrainian government. More related innuendo followed. Other Twitter accounts retweeted these claims. First it was bots and small follower accounts. Then it made its way to the bigger influencers. Eventually these claims became a headline story on the junk news site The Gateway Pundit. As the campaign grew, the pro-Kremlin voices and the MAGA influencers became indistinguishable. I could be talking about any number of disinformation campaigns carried out by many of the same actors over the last six years. As of Monday, November 14, what we’re talking about focuses on the collapse of the FTX cryptocurrency exchange, its founder Sam Bankman-Fried, and other executives at the company, particularly FTX’s Co-CEO Ryan Salame.
Let’s set the record straight on what we’re claiming and what we’re not. FTX employees donated tens of millions of dollars to Democrats in the midterm elections. Its founder, Sam Bankman-Fried, donated over $40 million to Democrats himself. FTX was engaged in fraud. The scale of the fraud and the money investors lost could easily reach billions (if not tens of billions) of dollars. FTX’s business practices appear to be illegal, immoral and should be investigated thoroughly. Name and shame the responsible parties and their enablers. However, all of that can be true, and the right-wing talking points targeting Democrats and the Ukrainian government can simultaneously be a multipurpose disinformation campaign devoid of facts and fueled almost entirely on innuendo and conjecture.
What was the relationship with FTX, Ukraine and U.S. politicians?
The essence of the theory being pushed on social media and right-wing / pro-Kremlin outlets is clear enough. FTX was partnered with Ukraine. The U.S. government, via the Biden White House, sent billions of dollars of aid to Ukraine. FTX also donated millions of dollars to Democrats. Ergo, somehow, the billions in aid sent to Ukraine weren’t really about halting the Russian invasion of their country. Instead, in this new telling, the money sent to Ukraine was laundered through the country by FTX, which then took a portion of that money and donated it back to Democratic candidates during the midterm elections.
However, even the most cursory examination of these claims raises several red flags.
First, FTX Co-CEO Ryan Salame donated $23.6 million to Republicans in the midterms, as was reported on and as you can see for yourself in the FEC database. This wasn’t an open secret. It wasn’t even a secret. Sam Bankman-Fried, on his official Twitter account @SBF_FTX, stated that he and Salame, “signed up campaigns to accept crypto; and gave some, including millions to Senate & House Republicans.”
As to the Republicans, for the most part, they also support sending aid to Ukraine. When a $40 billion aid package to Ukraine was approved by Congress in May of this year, 57 Republicans voted 'no' while three Republicans did not vote. Since there are 212 Republicans in the House, that means 152 Republicans in the House approved the aid package to Ukraine. In the Senate, 11 Republicans voted against the same $40 billion aid package. Since there are 50 Republican Senators, that means 39 Republicans approved it. If there was some massive money laundering scheme at play here, Republicans and Democrats both have exposure here in any future investigations.
However, there’s no evidence FTX was laundering money in Ukraine. (Maybe they were. We just don’t know yet.)
The first website to really put forth this theory was notorious junk news purveyor The Gateway Pundit, which claimed, “We’ve identified an interview where Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF) admitted that FTX was laundering money for the Ukrainian government. They then link to an account that posted an interview Bankman-Fried did on CNN posted by a random user on Twitter.
In the video, Bankman-Fried is asked about how FTX was aiding the Ukrainian government, and I’ll provide you with the transcript of his interview with Julia Chatterly taken from CNN’s website:
CHATTERLEY: Final quick question Sam, because I'm running out of time. And the last time we talked, you were talking about philanthropy. And I know you set up working with the Ukrainian government ways to use crypto to raise money for the government. I just wanted to ask you quickly, because obviously, they've also changed the rules, concerns about sort of spillover effects and substitution away from their currency.
CHATTERLEY: How much money did you raise? And what do you think about this is a tool for the governments but also the risks associated with it, too?
BANKMAN-FRIED: Yes, absolutely. And I think that gets to the point that this can be a great thing for the world. I think it can also be a really messy thing. But I think that at its core, you know, we've seen millions of dollars go through, you know, the systems we've given.
I think something close to a million ourselves as well, just to support humanitarian aid and growth rate in Ukraine. And I think when you think about what it would take to get by, you know, to get funds, both to the government there where we do have a relationship with the Ukrainian government, for raising capital for them using Cryptocurrencies that runs through FTX. You know, whether it's getting money to the government, or whether it's getting money to individuals that are in need, you know, there are literally tanks outside of the banks. And then - and this gets to, I think, one of the, you know, places where it can be really important to have a fully digital banking system. And I, you know, fully digital way of handling payments. I think that's, you know, an international one. That's the core of what we've been, you know, helping to support in Ukraine.
As you can read, Bankman-Fried believed FTX had donated “something close to a million ourselves” to the Ukrainian government, and they did work to make it easier for people to donate to Ukraine using cryptocurrencies through the FTX platform. However, creating a platform to allow crypto donations is essentially Go Fund Me on the blockchain. It can theoretically be used by people committing fraud, but there’s no admission of money laundering or any other fraud in the video as the The Gateway Pundit article claimed. That’s pure conjecture. It’s fiction.
FTX’s work setting up that donation platform, and their partnership with the Ukrainian government has been public knowledge since March. Both Democrats and Republicans received millions in donations from Sam Bankman-Fried and his Co-CEO Ryan Salame since then.
Even if FTX did donate a million (or maybe even more) dollars to Ukraine, Sam Bankman-Fried's net worth was once listed at $24 billion, and as of a week ago, it remained at $16 billion. At that level of wealth, $1 million is a fairly unspectacular public relations move. It’s not like giving aid to Ukraine this year is a novel idea either. More than 100 companies have given aid to Ukraine worth billions of dollars since Russia's full-scale invasion began, including Microsoft, Google, KFC, McDonald's, Airbnb, SpaceX and many others. I'm not criticizing this. By all means, keep helping Ukraine! But it’s silly to pretend like FTX was an outlier here. This is the norm.
How did this disinformation campaign blow up so quickly?
The story began with the much publicized collapse of FTX, a massive story of fraud on a scale approaching Enron.
A reminder that FTX and the Ukrainian government were partners is posted by the pro-Kremlin outlet Zerohedge.
The next day, we see Zerohedge quote tweeting their original tweet about FTX and Ukraine. The new post claims, “The money-laundering that will emerge from this bankruptcy will be historic.”
So, their audience is already meant to have made a connection between FTX, Ukraine and a money laundering operation. Then comes the final kicker. The Democrats are involved.
What if the promised Red Wave was only stopped because of fraud involving the Democratic Party, the Ukrainian government and the now-bankrupt crypto firm which might’ve stolen billions of dollars from its users? By Sunday afternoon, the story was everywhere in pro-Kremlin and MAGA media circles. Many of the usual suspects tweeted about it throughout the day. Even Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, took a meme straight from 4chan and the pro-Trump forum “The_Donald”—which was long ago banned from Reddit for spreading misinformation—and shared it with his followers.
By day’s end, a less than exhaustive list of right-wing and pro-Kremlin accounts who had tweeted in agreement with this concocted narrative included Zerohedge, Max Blumenthal, Ian Miles Chong, Jack Posobiec, Benny Johnson, Kim Dotcom, Michael Savage, Mark Finchem, Madison Cawthorn and many, many more.
There’s no more evidence to corroborate any of this than there was when Zerohedge posted their first tweet advancing this storyline three days ago. This is an avalanche of innuendo, “just asking questions” and leading headlines from fringe and even more fringe sources. I’ve read the stories that appear after those headlines. There’s no meat on these bones. They can’t prove anything they’re claiming right now, but they don’t care. This is already taken as gospel by their audiences because they keep repeating the lie.
What are they hoping to gain here?
This narrative is an excuse for the poor Republican performance in the midterms. It’s an attack line against Joe Biden by tying him and the Democratic Party to “corruption in Ukraine”—with the search for this supposed corruption still a MAGA open wound that led to Donald Trump’s first impeachment. It also gives further justification for ending aid to Ukraine, as increasing numbers of politicians and voters on the right are pushing for. The usual reasons for astroturfed disinformation campaigns also apply. This is about sowing doubt and confusion. It’s an opportunity for junk news purveyors to convince more people to click on a link and provide them with ad revenue. The message is anti-Ukraine, and so by its very nature favorable to the Kremlin. Russian state-owned media have a long history of denigrating the Ukrainian government and its people. That includes much coverage about how corrupt Ukraine and its influential oligarchs have been over the last several decades. To be clear, it’s not all untrue, but it’s also a convenient way for the Russians to deflect concerns about their own massive corruption problems. Where the Kremlin and MAGA align here is wishing to see aid to Ukraine come to a complete stop. On November 3rd, GOP House Representative Marjorie Taylor (MTG) stated, "Under Republicans, not another penny will go to Ukraine..."
On Sunday, in a quote tweet amplifying the FTX / Ukraine disinformation campaign, MTG said, "We need the majority in order to have subpoena power." In the next tweet, she stated, “I want an audit of where every single penny has gone in funding to Ukraine. Everyone is ok with that, right?"
The truth of the matter is there are already a good deal of safety valves in place when it comes to the auditing of Ukraine aid, but these do not fit the right-wing narrative. Therefore, they are ignored.
Nevertheless, it’s important to put the two tweets in context to understand what’s coming next. In one of the Gateway Pundit articles published about FTX recently, Joe Hoft asked the question, “Will Joe or Hunter Biden be found to be connected?” Then on Monday afternoon, MTG went on Steve Bannon’s show to say she’s not afraid of a civil war within the GOP, but she threw her support behind Kevin McCarthy for Speaker of the House. We can’t know what concessions McCarthy gave to receive MTG’s support, but we do know he’s already wavered on continuing to supply aid to the Ukrainian government. If the GOP are able to retake control of the House (and they’re still favored to, barely), then the subpoena power is coming, and you can bet they’re going to go looking for evidence to prove this FTX / Ukraine / Democrat pipeline exists.