"You will have to excuse me if anything untoward happens."
John McAfee is seated across from me in a worn burgundy steel-armed chair near the lobby entrance of the Parc 55 Hotel in downtown San Francisco. The time is about 6:30 p.m. on Monday, and he has a flight out of town at 10. He's just finished a day at TechCrunch’s Disrupt SF conference and is heading to Tennessee for a photo shoot with tattoo magazine Inked.
McAfee had offered over Twitter to meet with me in response to a somewhat snarky pair of Tweets about him engaging in the type of traditional canvasing that he had told CNN he would eschew in his presidential campaign.
He must have noticed my puzzled expression. "I'm pulling your leg," says the former cyber security mogul. "I've had two weeks of very difficult times -- I did not anticipate interviewing tonight."
A ball-capped guy who looks like he must be one of McAfee's handlers is seated on a couch nearby watching the interview. McAfee's wife sits on the couch at points throughout the interview but is mostly out of view, a rotating crew of young and younger-than-McAfee men taking her place.
McAfee had told CNN earlier this month that he wanted to disband the TSA and rein in the NSA. He thinks the state of cyber security in the nation is abysmal. It's a rather wonky platform with which to catch the American electorate's imagination, and I say so.
"First of all, let’s talk about why we’re here," he says.
He explains he had attended Disrupt earlier in the day in search of startups to develop apps to support his campaign. The campaign is partnering with communication startups including Firetalk. (Firetalk general manager Rush Doshi said in an email earlier this week that details were still being worked out for the app to host the candidate's fireside chats.)
McAfee starts outlining his plan, introducing a couple of elements I hadn't heard before: get rid of border patrol and reinvest budgeted funds into education for immigrants. Employees laid off from the disbanded TSA would go work for businesses in the private sector, on the government's dime.
It's a wildly ambitious vision that even a candidate with mainstream support would have trouble getting through Congress. McAfee is not a mainstream candidate. Among other colorful elements of his biography, he was once the subject of a manhunt in Belize after his neighbor there had been found dead. With such baggage, why, I wonder out loud, should people take him seriously as a candidate?
The plan is serious, he says.
"You have an obligation as the press to report what's happening, not to report your feelings or to try to find something to make you have more eyeballs," he says. "Your job is to inform."
"So let’s finish this plan."
The plan means new businesses, better job training for immigrants, all while the government is saving money, he says. "Shouldn't the government be the same thing as a company? Should it be able to spend money that it does not have? That's insane to me, I'm sorry."
I ask if he has a breakdown of his proposals, in written form.
"I'm breaking it down for you right now."
Sure, I say. But you're throwing out a lot of numbers...
"We're only 10 days into the campaign, of course we don't have a breakdown. I'm breaking it down to you as I am speaking and living and breathing. You are the first person to get this."
I am not, in point of fact, the first person to get this. Biz Carson of Business Insider interviewed McAfee in the hotel lobby immediately before my arrival. He gave her the same details.
"Would you like this or not?" McAfee asks.
I would. I hand him the phone so I can get better quality out of the recording as he goes over the numbers again. He says the total TSA budget of about $8 billion would be whittled down to roughly $2 billion to cover employee salaries while eliminating everything else. Half of the roughly $4 billion spent on border patrol would go to education. (I double-check his figures later; they check out, more or less.)
The twist in all this is he wants to present his plans to the American public through online video fireside chats in which constituents submit comments and questions, and he responds on-air.
"We have software that will parse -- you know what parsing is? No, you're not a technologist, okay – so parsing is a process, a technological process of analyzing written communication to determine the meaning," he says.
The parser consolidates the questions into a shorter list by identifying similarities and patterns, the result being that everyone gets their questions answered, says McAfee.
"Everybody -- because trust me, there are not 10 million different questions to anything. There never are. I don't care what issue or how complex you may think it is," he says, offering gay marriage as an example. "You find me more than 15 different objective ways of looking at gay marriage, and I will eat one of your shoes."
Maybe his campaign is a marketing scheme for something else having to do with his use of communication platforms. He must have some plan for how he'll use the fireside chat setup outside of his campaign, or some nonpolitical end-goal to his partnerships with various startups.
"So you've got this plan, and one thing I'm wondering about is –"
"The plan I gave you? I have no idea if I'm going to do that," he says. That stops me short. Your plan is not your plan? "I've got 10,000 ideas, just as good or just as bad depending on your perception. They're all going to be presented to the American public. The American public is going to tell me whether or not it works.
"So, what I just told you is not what I'm going to do," he says, inflecting his voice for emphasis. "What I told you is the ideas that I have to present to the American public to let them tell me."
We are almost 20 minutes into a 25-minute interview, and almost everything we have just spoken about is apparently hypothetical.
Back to the original question: As long as he's putting together this fireside chat package and recruiting startups to, as he puts it, make apps for his campaign, what are his plans for all that infrastructure if he loses?
His answer is that he is not going to lose.
"I cannot lose. We have run the numbers time and time again. It is not possible for me to lose. You must believe me, I am 70 years old, there is not a single task in my entire life that I have approached that I have lost or not succeeded in," he says.
This is so obviously not possible, I have trouble even putting my objection into words. Everybody has failed at something, I begin to say. He cuts me off.
"I have not failed at anything. You point something out that I've failed at."
He describes his deportation from Guatemala to the U.S. in lieu of deportation to Belize where he had been wanted as a fugitive as another success. He says, "I hired the attorney general for the country of Guatemala to deport me."
The topic of failure transitions to a monologue about money and self reinvention. McAfee alludes to when he virtually lost his entire fortune after the manhunt in Belize, and authorities there burned down his property.
"They burn down your house, you've lost all your money, is that failure? Do you know how easy it is to make money? Money is flying all around us," he says.
Most people don't consider money the easiest thing to acquire. I ask him to restate his point.
"Okay, people who understand finance, people who understand the flow of money, like Donald Trump -- Donald Trump was $900 million in debt personally, four of his companies went bankrupt four different times, and he's still a trillionaire. Why? Because he understands that it is easy to make money. It's hard to keep money. We all know that I could teach you in a week how to make a million dollars but you would lose it in a day because that requires real skill. Now anybody can make money, so losing money is -- life comes and goes, it's easy to get some more, get another hundred million dollars, anybody can do it. It just requires courage, and you have to change your thinking. You don't make it by working for someone; you make it by getting an idea to catch a hundred million dollars on as it flows by."
It's time for McAfee to get ready for his flight. The Inked photo shoot awaits. Campaign advisor Kyle Sandler is hovering around, wearing at #McAfee16 T-shirt.
"If you wanna give him shit about kissing babies you should have reached out and talked to us," says Sandler, a former Google employee who now runs Opelika, Ala., startup incubator Round House. Opelika apparently has a great fiber-optic network, and according to Sandler is becoming a startup hub. McAfee visits twice a month to mentor young startup founders. Sandler says he is McAfee's partner at Future Tense Central holding company.
A twentysomething sitting on the couch in the corner where I'd interviewed McAfee chimes in. He's wearing a blue T-shirt imprinted with an "S" logo for his startup Simple Prose, based at the Round House incubator. McAfee is a "pretty good mentor," says the young man, Cole Kinchler. (Someone else in a Simply Prose T-shirt later tells me I shouldn't include anything Kinchler says in the story, explaining that he is not involved in the campaign. This surprises me, because I had assumed those hanging out with McAfee at his hotel during a campaign stop had an interest in McAfee's campaign.)
Sandler is involved in the campaign because he believes Washington, D.C., legislators often have no grasp of the technology they're attempting to regulate: "They don't know the first thing about cyber threats or cyber security." He says the government needs to evolve with the world and "take technology a little more seriously."
McAfee's campaign is the prod the government requires -- even if it falls short, Sandler says. "We're playing to win, and if we don't win, though, we're changing the conversation," he says.
I wonder how McAfee would feel about his advisor's realism. Does he not know that McAfee has never failed at anything?
Encryption startup DemonSaw founder Eric J. Anderson, who goes by hacker name Eijah, was now seated where McAfee had been seated. He jumps in to share his own thoughts on Washington and tech.
But first he talks about how he was recently profiled by Forbes, and how he was one of the elite programmers at Rockstar Games to work on Grand Theft Auto 5. Eventually, in answer to the question about Washington misunderstanding technology, Eijah raises the issue of FBI director James Comey suggesting the U.S. government have access to a "back door" into encryption software.
"It basically destroys the whole reason for having cryptography," says Eijah, adding that such a key could end up being leaked anyway.
I ask Eijah about his connection to McAfee. He explains that McAfee has served as a mentor for him and is helping him make connections for funding. I ask him about his specific role in the campaign. He says he's unaffiliated. I ask him about his thoughts on the campaign. He says he hasn't really been following it.
"I honestly don't know the campaign well yet," says Eijah.
He then gets a call on his cell, and after he hangs up, apologizes -- he has to rush out. He says he'd be available any time to talk about cyber security or DemonSaw.