Venture capitalist Peter Thiel defended his support of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a speech Monday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
The Paypal cofounder and Facebook board member also argued his bankrolling of a lawsuit brought by pro-wrestler Terry "Hulk Hogan" Bollea against media conglomerate Gawker, which ultimately drove the company into bankruptcy, was not a threat to freedom of the press.
"I have a strong bias for outsiders," Thiel said of his support of Trump, during a question and answer period following a speech in which he expressed his support for Trump's economic policies. He cited by way of example his past contributions to presidential candidates Carly Fiorina and Ron Paul.
"This is the first time I've done something that actually felt conventional, it didn't feel contrarian," he said of his support of Trump.
Thiel's open support of Trump has baffled and offended many in the tech community who view Trump as racist, sexist, and retrograde. The investor served as a Trump delegate at the Republican National Convention and gave a speech endorsing the candidate during the convention. Industry leaders have been nearly unanimous in their opposition to the Republican nominee and have served as a substantial source of donations for Hillary Clinton's campaign.
Earlier this month, Thiel was reported to have made a $1.25 million donation to Trump's campaign. The donation came shortly after a recording surfaced of Trump bragging that a man as famous as he could grope women without consequence. Thiel said Monday his donation was not related to the recording.
The donation prompted two diversity organizations to cut ties with Y Combinator until the accelerator startup formally cuts ties with Thiel, its part-time partner and investor, and put Facebook in the spotlight for retaining Thiel as a board member.
Thiel said the reaction from Silicon Valley, which he knew to be liberal leaning, had made him realize the industry was "more polarized than I realized." He also said a small number of people in the technology world had come forward to him as secret Trump supporters.
"Most of the larger tech companies ... have not said you shouldn't be able to back Trump or anything like that," he said. "But it's surprising to me that anybody would say if you're beyond the pale for taking a position that's held by half the country."
He said he was known for supporting fringe views in areas such as life extension and seasteading, but his support of Trump "was the first time I've done something big in my life that was just what half the country believed in. And it's been the most controversial thing ever, so that really surprised me."
Responding to a question about whether his companies had suffered blowback over his stated politics, Thiel said, "I don't think so."
"I think that would be an even crazier thing," he said. "I'm not Trump, the founders of the companies I invest in are not me, their employees are not the founders and if you sort of conflate two or three groups of people like this, that's a really crazy thing to do."
Responding to questions about Trump's views on immigration, Thiel said he did not support a religious test for Muslims as Trump has advocated for, and went on to say he did not believe Trump supporters take literally the candidate's repeated calls to build a wall along the Mexican border and make the neighboring country pay for it.
Thiel asserted the media "never takes [Trump] seriously but it always takes him literally." Trump supporters want "saner more sensible immigration policy," not a literal wall, Thiel asserted.
Thiel also responded to questions about his funding of Bollea's lawsuit against Gawker Media over the publication of a sex tape the wrestler had made. He said he did not believe the lawsuit set a precedent for media repression and that he believed the case to be singular.
"If you make a sex tape of someone with their permission, you are a pornographer. If you make a sex tape without their permission, we are told now, you are a journalist," he said. "To hide behind the First Amendment [in publishing a sex tape], that is an insult to journalists."
Radio host Bubba "The Love Sponge" Clem reportedly filmed the sexual encounter and Gawker published the footage. Thiel has admitted he funded the lawsuit over the tape as part of what The New York Times referred to as a "secret war" on Gawker, which in 2007 ran a post stating Thiel was gay.
National Press Club president Thomas Burr asked Thiel if what happened to Gawker could happen to other news publications: "Could wealthy, powerful people seek revenge against a news organization because of something they didn't like and use their influence and money to take them out?"
Thiel responded that wealthy people "shouldn't do that" but that Gawker was a "pretty flimsy business." He went on to suggest that Gawker could have withstood the litigation if it weren't "a bad business that didn't make much money."
"You know, they lost because of an enormous verdict that came in against them. That's why they lost at the end of the day," Thiel said. "I could have underwritten many more lawsuits, that wasn't the problem, the problem was that they lost on the facts."