Between Hillary Clinton's inexcusable email practices and Donald Trump's invocation of "the cyber" (which is so big right now), it'd be tough to describe either of these two as the "technology candidate" in the race for the US presidency.
But an email sent by Clinton campaign head John Podesta to digital strategist Teddy Goff in 2015 suggests that Hillary's team contemplated accepting political donations in the form of virtual currency in order to keep up with Republicans who were doing the same.
Interestingly, the digital currency wasn't bitcoin, but a much less popular alternative called Ven. Unlike bitcoin, which anyone with an internet connection can use, Ven is the in-house currency of a kind of international business travel club called Hub Culture. With Ven, club members can buy totally normal and relatable things like Hub Culture-branded rosé, tickets to events like a tobogganing meet-up at the Davos world economic forum in Switzerland (dinner and wine included), and pieces of contemporary art.
Ven has an environmentally friendly side too, since Hub Culture uses the money it makes off the currency to purchase carbon offsets. The club's site claims the club has "put over 25,000 acres of Amazon rainforest under protection" using the currency.
The email, released by Wikileaks, shows that Hub Culture founder Stan Stalnaker approached Podesta at a Clinton fundraiser in London during May of 2015, and pitched Ven as a way for Democrats to keep up with Republicans using virtual currencies. The month prior to that, Republican Rand Paul had begun accepting bitcoin donations to fund his presidential bid.
"As we discussed, bitcoin is being used on the Republican side and could be a useful tool," Stalnaker wrote, "but we think Ven is a better choice for your campaign due to its environmental benefits, identity metrics and closed loop status."
"Essentially digital currency with a green angle as opposed to bitcoin's libertarian Ayn Rand schtick"
Podesta was interested.
"I don't send all the crazy ideas I hear about at fundraisers your way, but this seems interesting and legit," Podesta wrote to Goff. "Essentially digital currency with a green angle as opposed to bitcoin's libertarian Ayn Rand schtick. Would you get some members of your team to meet with [Stalnaker] when he's in NYC later this month to see if it's worth a real conversation?"
"Apologies for the slow reply—yes, of course, feel free to introduce and we will set up a meeting," Goff replied.
Stalnaker confirmed over email that no meeting took place with Clinton campaign officials, and said that they simply "ran out of time." A spokesperson for the Clinton campaign said that the team is "not authenticating any individual emails" and sent a statement addressing Trump's incitement of Russian hacking attempts.
Passing on Ven may have been wise since the currency is only used by a small pool of businesspeople. A 2014 interview with the owner of an exchange where people can trade Ven pegged its user base at "maybe 30,000" people. In contrast, about 150,000 unique bitcoin addresses—a proxy metric for the number of users—were used on the bitcoin blockchain in the same period. Now, that number is up to about half a million.
Still, money is money, and anyone running a presidential campaign needs lots of it. But just imagine that Clinton's team began accepting political donations in the form of a virtual currency only used by a small number of globetrotting business types. The optics would've been horrendous, especially when democratic socialist Bernie Sanders announced his run for the Democratic nomination in April of 2015, just weeks before the emails between Podesta and Goff about Ven were written.
If nothing else, the decision between Ven and bitcoin shows how technologies can become subtle tools in politicians' plans to woo voters.
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UPDATE 10/18: This article was updated with comment from Hub Culture founder Stan Stalnaker and the Clinton campaign.