The tech billionaire who is one of the most powerful men in Silicon Valley sounded almost naive as he sat before a roomful of reporters on Monday in the nation’s capital to explain his $1.25-million donation to help elect Donald Trump.
“I didn’t think as much about the donation as much as I should have,” Peter Thiel said in his halting voice that makes every phrase sound thought out. “I didn’t even think that Trump needed my money.”
Thiel has thought a lot about the donation since it became public in early October, facing down widespread rejection in Silicon Valley, including an effort to oust him from the board of Facebook, a company in which he was an early investor.
Monday’s appearance at the National Press Club was part of Thiel’s counteroffensive that also included an interview with the New York Times aimed at explaining his support for Trump and broadening his public profile. Thiel made no apologies for supporting the Republican presidential nominee, while conceding he has been surprised by what he called a “visceral reaction” in socially liberal Silicon Valley, where he is practically alone among major tech figures in donating to Trump.
Thiel, who co-founded PayPal, pointed out that he is known for his contrarian streak. He funds a fellowship geared toward persuading students to drop out of college, a project trying to extend life using technology and an organization that wants to build a floating city free from government. He also funded a massive libel lawsuit on behalf of former wrestling star Hulk Hogan that shut down Gawker, years after it disclosed that Thiel is gay.
Thiel has hardly been private about his support for Trump. He also spoke on Trump’s behalf during the Republican National Convention this summer. But like GOP politicians who have been put on the spot, the avowed libertarian has faced numerous questions about Trump’s bombastic personality and controversial statements about minorities, women and other groups. Thiel said he does not approve of some of Trump’s rhetoric, including the 2005 recording in which Trump bragged about grabbing women without consent that became public just before he made his donation.
“I don’t think the voters pull the lever in order to endorse a candidate’s flaws,” he said.
Instead, he said, they are desperate for an outsider who understands that the country is involved in too many wars, that free trade has not worked, that workers have seen wages stagnate, that college students take on debts they may never be able to repay because of staggering tuition costs. Thiel said he believed Hillary Clinton is too willing to risk nuclear conflict with Russia by imposing a no-fly zone in Syria and too closely associated with politics that have fostered economic bubbles.
But his comments also showed how hard it is for billionaires such as him to connect with the middle-class people he said were being left out. At one point, while defending his effort to secretly back Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, he said Hogan could not have afforded the battle himself.
"If you’re a single-digit millionaire like Hulk Hogan,” he said, “you have no effective access to our legal system."