Soros isn’t cowed by set­backs to global aims

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHAEL KRANISH

zurich — Ge­orge Soros, the bil­lion­aire in­vestor and lib­eral donor, sat in his ho­tel suite by Lake Zurich last week, lament­ing the turn much of the world has taken in re­cent years: “Every­thing that could go wrong has gone wrong.”

His fa­vored pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, Hil­lary Clin­ton, lost to Pres­i­dent Trump, whose “Amer­ica First” plat­form runs counter to the glob­al­ism Soros em­braces. Trump, he said, “is willing to de­stroy the world.” The Euro­pean Union, which Soros once hoped would be so suc­cess­ful that he could end his char­i­ta­ble work in the re­gion, is con­tend­ing with the impending loss of Bri­tain and a rise of anti-im­mi­grant sen­ti­ment. And Soros him­self has emerged as a po­lit­i­cal tar­get in elec­tions from Hun­gary to Cal­i­for­nia, where his dona­tions have been used as a cud­gel against the causes he sup­ports.

The 87-year-old Holo­caust sur­vivor, who has poured much of his for­tune into pro­mot­ing lib­eral

val­ues around the globe, is now con­fronting a wave of na­tion­al­ist sen­ti­ment wash­ing against is­sues he has cham­pi­oned.

But rather than re­cede from pub­lic life in his twi­light years, Soros has de­cided to push even harder for his agenda, he told The Wash­ing­ton Post in a rare in­ter­view.

“The big­ger the dan­ger, the big­ger the threat, the more I feel en­gaged to con­front it,” Soros said Thurs­day. Wear­ing an open-col­lar shirt, he spoke an­i­mat­edly for an hour, sit­ting at a ta­ble in his suite after an ap­pear­ance at a Hu­man Rights Watch con­fer­ence. “So in that sense, yes, I re­dou­ble my ef­forts.”

Con­fronting brick walls

Soros’s will­ing­ness to re­main in the fray comes as he faces re­newed vil­i­fi­ca­tion from a widerang­ing group of op­po­nents that in­cludes ac­tress Roseanne Barr and Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin. He has been ac­cused of be­ing an all-pow­er­ful pup­pet mas­ter, a Nazi sym­pa­thizer and the per­son con­trol­ling the Demo­cratic Party.

He ac­knowl­edges that the at­tacks can blunt his im­pact.

“It makes it very dif­fi­cult for me to speak ef­fec­tively be­cause it can be taken out of con­text and used against me,” Soros said.

For all the bil­lions of dol­lars at his dis­posal, Soros is also be­ing forced to reckon with lim­its on his po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence in the United States. He ac­knowl­edged that he did not see Trump’s elec­tion com­ing. “Ap­par­ently, I was liv­ing in my own bub­ble,” he said.

Soros, who plans to spend at least $15 mil­lion in 2018 races, has al­ready faced some set­backs this cy­cle. His bid to re­place sev­eral dis­trict at­tor­neys in Cal­i­for­nia with chal­lengers seek­ing changes to the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem was largely un­suc­cess­ful in Tues­day’s elec­tions. “We ran into a brick wall in Cal­i­for­nia,” he said.

Soros said he is cer­tain in his as­sess­ment of Trump, whom he de­scribes as a “nar­cis­sist” who “con­sid­ers him­self all-pow­er­ful.”

But he does not ap­pear set­tled on the strat­egy to de­feat him. Soros said he dis­ap­proves of a cam­paign by fel­low lib­eral bil­lion­aire Tom Steyer to push to im­peach the pres­i­dent, say­ing he would only sup­port such an ef­fort if Democrats re­take Congress this year and gain Repub­li­can sup­port.

Soros, who said he wants to avoid di­vid­ing the party, also re­fused to pick fa­vorites among the emerg­ing crop of 2020 Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial con­tenders. But there is one prospec­tive can­di­date he said he hopes does not get the nod: Sen. Kirsten Gil­li­brand of New York.

He blames Gil­li­brand for push­ing the res­ig­na­tion of for­mer se­na­tor Al Franken “whom I ad­mire,” Soros said, “in or­der to im­prove her chances.”

Franken (Minn.) re­signed in Jan­uary after a num­ber of women al­leged that he touched them in­ap­pro­pri­ately. Gil­li­brand was a lead­ing voice urg­ing her fel­low Demo­crat to quit. She de­clined to com­ment. Ear­lier this year, Pa­trick Gas­pard, the for­mer Obama White House po­lit­i­cal di­rec­tor who now runs Soros’s Open So­ci­ety Foun­da­tions, said he asked the bil­lion­aire how he viewed the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s role at a time when so much of Soros’s work is un­der as­sault.

“This is the mo­ment we were built for,” Soros re­sponded, ac­cord­ing to Gas­pard.

The Hun­gar­ian-born Soros, who be­came one of the world’s wealth­i­est peo­ple by manag­ing hedge funds and bet­ting on cur­rency changes, has given away bil­lions of dol­lars to groups pro­mot­ing hu­man rights, democ­racy and lib­eral causes.

His New York-based Open So­ci­ety Foun­da­tions now spends $940 mil­lion a year in 100 coun­tries, pro­mot­ing val­ues such as free speech and free elec­tions, ac­cord­ing to the group. In the United States, the Open So­ci­ety spends $150 mil­lion a year fi­nanc­ing groups such as the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union and Planned Par­ent­hood.

For a pe­riod of time, Soros was the largest pri­vate donor in Rus­sia, fund­ing ini­tia­tives such as an anti-tor­ture pro­gram, ac­cord­ing to the foun­da­tion. Two years ago, Putin’s govern­ment ef­fec­tively banned Soros’s group from dis­tribut­ing funds in the coun­try, call­ing it “un­de­sir­able” and “a threat to the fundamentals of the con­sti­tu­tional sys­tem.”

Last week, Putin sug­gested that Soros’s spend­ing around the world re­sem­bles the kind of po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence that U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials blame on Rus­sia.

“He in­ter­venes in things all over the world,” Putin told Aus­trian tele­vi­sion. “But the State De­part­ment will tell you that it has noth­ing to do with that, that this is the per­sonal busi­ness of Mr. Soros.”

Else­where in Eu­rope, Soros has also come un­der at­tack. This year, Vik­tor Or­ban, the right-wing prime min­is­ter of Hun­gary, won re­elec­tion after charg­ing that Soros wanted to flood Eu­rope with Mus­lim im­mi­grants. Or­ban said one of his first ef­forts would be to pass a “Stop Soros” bill, aimed at crack­ing down on or­ga­ni­za­tions he views as coun­ter­ing his agenda.

“I’m painfully aware that they are against the ideas that I stand for,” Soros said of his crit­ics around the world.

2016 and Trump

In the United States, Soros was ini­tially seen as an ally by Repub­li­cans who shared his op­po­si­tion to com­mu­nist dic­ta­tors. He made mod­est dona­tions to sup­port the GOP in the 1980s and 1990s, ac­cord­ing to cam­paign fi­nance re­ports.

But he turned de­ci­sively against Repub­li­cans after Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush in­vaded Iraq in 2003 on the ba­sis of faulty in­tel­li­gence about weapons of mass de­struc­tion.

Since then, his po­lit­i­cal spend­ing — a frac­tion of the money he gives away ev­ery year — has made him one of the Demo­cratic Party’s most re­li­able and gen­er­ous donors.

In 2016, he poured at least $25 mil­lion into mo­bi­liz­ing Demo­cratic vot­ers in an ef­fort to bol­ster Clin­ton and other can­di­dates on the left, a Soros spokesman said.

In the fi­nal days of the White House race, Trump spoke in his clos­ing tele­vi­sion ad about send­ing a tough message to “global spe­cial in­ter­ests” who wanted to con­trol Wash­ing­ton, as images of Soros and other fi­nan­cial lead­ers who are Jewish flashed on the screen amid footage of Clin­ton.

Soros, who de­scribes him­self as an ag­nos­tic Jew, said he con­sid­ered the ad “a coded anti-Semitic message.”

On Elec­tion Day, Soros gath­ered with friends to watch re­turns in his Fifth Av­enue du­plex, over­look­ing the reser­voir of New York’s Cen­tral Park.

As the re­turns came in, “the party turned into a wake,” said An­thony Romero, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the ACLU, who was one of the guests.

Soros said he spent months study­ing what went wrong in the elec­tion. He said he con­cluded that while Clin­ton would have made a “very good pres­i­dent,” she was not a good cam­paigner. “She was too much like a school­marm,” Soros said. “Talk­ing down to peo­ple . . . in­stead of lis­ten­ing to them.”

But he said he also di­ag­nosed a larger prob­lem: the in­creas­ing ease with which peo­ple’s opin­ions can be ma­nip­u­lated. “It is so much eas­ier to de­stroy trust than to build it up,” Soros said.

Soros has known Trump for years. Decades ago, the two men dined to­gether sev­eral times at the Berk­shire es­tate of a mu­tual friend, Soros said.

“I had no idea he had po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions, but I didn’t like his be­hav­ior as a busi­ness­man,” he said.

At one point, he said, Trump asked him to be the lead ten­ant in a new of­fice build­ing he was de­vel­op­ing in New York City.

“Name your price,” Trump said, ac­cord­ing to Soros. Soros said he de­clined be­cause he was con­cerned that be­ing so closely as­so­ci­ated with the de­vel­oper, whose At­lantic City casi­nos were fi­nan­cially trou­bled at the time, would hurt “my rep­u­ta­tion.”

The White House and the Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

Soros said that if Democrats win in a “land­slide” and forge a bi­par­ti­san re­la­tion­ship with moder­ate Repub­li­cans, as he ex­pects, then he would fa­vor im­peach­ing Trump “be­cause he is en­dan­ger­ing the United States and the world.”

But even then, there would be a cost, he said: “This would make [Vice Pres­i­dent] Pence the pres­i­dent, who is much more com­pe­tent in rep­re­sent­ing the far right, whose views with which I dis­agree, than Trump him­self.”

Races, dona­tions, de­fi­ance

This cy­cle, Soros has fo­cused his po­lit­i­cal in­vest­ments on con­gres­sional races and mo­bi­liz­ing vot­ers on the left. His largest dona­tion this year has been $5 mil­lion to Win Jus­tice, a voter-mo­bi­liza­tion group fo­cused on mi­nori­ties, women and young vot­ers in Florida, Michi­gan and Ne­vada.

He has also con­tin­ued to in­vest in dis­trict at­tor­ney races, say­ing pros­e­cu­tors are “the linch­pin of the ju­di­cial sys­tem” and key to his ef­fort to re­duce prison sen­tences. He sent $1.45 mil­lion to a group that sup­ported civil rights at­tor­ney Larry Kras­ner in his suc­cess­ful race for Philadelphia dis­trict at­tor­ney last year. A spokesman said Kras­ner had never met Soros or any­one in his or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Soros’s re­cent ef­forts in Cal­i­for­nia were not so suc­cess­ful. Three of his can­di­dates for dis­trict at­tor­ney in Cal­i­for­nia lost their pri­maries, and a fourth faces a runoff.

His fi­nan­cial sup­port be­came a po­lit­i­cal is­sue in some of the cam­paigns. Sacra­mento County Dis­trict At­tor­ney Anne Marie Schu­bert, who de­feated her chal­lenger Tues­day, claimed that the city was “un­der at­tack” from the bil­lion­aire, “who has brought his war against law en­force­ment” to Sacra­mento.

The breadth of Soros’s spend­ing has made him a fre­quent tar­get of crit­ics on the right, who sug­gest he is se­cretly back­ing move­ments that ap­pear to be driven by the grass roots.

For­mer con­gress­man Jack Kingston, a Ge­or­gia Repub­li­can who is a CNN com­men­ta­tor, sug­gested on Twit­ter in Fe­bru­ary that Soros and other ac­tivists, rather than stu­dents, were be­hind a protest in the wake of a Florida high school shoot­ing in which a gun­man killed 17 peo­ple.

A spokesman said Soros had no in­volve­ment with the protest.

Kingston said in an in­ter­view that he was merely rais­ing the ques­tion of whether Soros was in­volved.

“Some names in­voke an emo­tional out­cry from the red-meat crowds, and cer­tainly he is one of them on the right,” Kingston said. “The left has theirs. He does get that sort of sin­is­ter, that is, that kind of myth about him, that he plays in the shad­ows. Maybe that’s wrong.”

Last month, Soros’s name went vi­ral again when Barr tweeted that he is “a nazi who turned in his fel­low Jews to be mur­dered in Ger­man con­cen­tra­tion camps & stole their wealth.”

Among those who retweeted her was the pres­i­dent’s el­dest son, Don­ald Trump Jr.

Soros, who said he used false pa­pers at age 13 to sur­vive the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion of Hun­gary, calls such claims “a to­tal fab­ri­ca­tion,” adding that they “an­noy me greatly.” But he is not fazed, he said. “I’m proud of my en­e­mies,” Soros said. “When I look at the en­e­mies I have all over the world, I must be do­ing some­thing right.”

JASPER JUINEN/BLOOMBERG NEWS

“The big­ger the dan­ger, the big­ger the threat, the more I feel en­gaged to con­front it,” said bil­lion­aire Ge­orge Soros, 87, a ma­jor donor to lib­eral causes around the world.

PABLO GORONDI/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Ac­tivists tear down one of the Hun­gar­ian govern­ment’s anti-Soros posters in Bu­dapest. Soros has been a po­lit­i­cal tar­get for years.

MATTHEW CAVANAUGH/GETTY IMAGES

Soros and then-Sen. Hil­lary Clin­ton (D-N.Y.) in 2004. He poured a great deal of money into her failed pres­i­den­tial run in 2016.

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