Mar 4, 2024 - Business

RFK, Jr. pitches bitcoin as freedom tech at Denver crypto conference

A political candidate speaking at a press conference, with white hair and a grey suit. He's gesuring with one hand as he looks toward a camera in the foreground.

Robert F. Kennedy speaking at a press conference at the National Western Complex in Denver. Photo: Brady Dale/Axios

DENVER — Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was only able to get one big round of applause Saturday at ETHDenver: When he said he recently bought bitcoin (BTC) and planned to buy some ether (ETH) once he got home.

Why it matters: The longshot independent candidate for the White House hit his key selling points for the cryptocurrency conference crowd, but the room during his on-stage conversation fell well short of feeling like a pep rally.

Kennedy showed up to the giant industry conference with a message that the U.S. government is on a mission to take away people's right to transact with whomever they want and that he's the man to stop it.

  • "Transactional freedom is as important as freedom of expression," Kennedy said during a press conference before his event appearance.
  • The message resonated with at least part of the crypto crowd at his on-stage conversation with Custodia Bank CEO Caitlin Long but didn't bring the house down either.

Zoom in: Watching donations to truckers protesting in Canada get shut down convinced him of the value of bitcoin, he explained.

  • Cryptocurrency advocates contend that (as an example) there's no freedom of association if people are denied the ability to pay for travel to participate in political activity.

Kennedy particularly objected to the idea of a U.S. dollar CBDC, or central bank digital currency. "I know how to stop it in this country," he told Axios in a private conversation.

  • CBDCs are actual money backed and issued by a central bank. Proponents argue that they could make payments cheaper and faster. Critics argue that they bring state surveillance too deep into people's lives.
  • He said he could do a lot via executive orders and would push for anti-CBDC legislation.
  • "I don't think there's anybody using a podium or a bully pulpit to explain to the American public how inconsistent central bank digital currencies are with our values and how threatening they are to our constitutional rights."

Reality check: The country's leading presidential candidates aren't jumping headfirst into CBDCs, either, though many other countries are moving toward such payment schemes.

  • The Biden administration issued an executive order to study the issue, while former President Trump has made known his objection to them.

The big picture: Kennedy argued to reporters that bitcoin gives the middle class a shot at holding their ground in an economy that's been hard on them.

  • It also makes it easier to finance green technology projects by offering them additional revenue streams, he said.
  • "I am the only candidate who is going to be an advocate for cryptocurrency," he said.
  • If elected, he said he would oppose decentralized digital assets being treated as securities. He also said he'd like to see small transactions exempt from taxation.
A protester, standing between a barricade and an audience, disrupts a fireside chat at a large conference.
A protest cameos during the fireside. Photo: Crystal Kim / Axios

Inside the room: Kennedy, who was briefly interrupted by a protester from Just Stop Oil, got his points in, including telling the conference crowd that he could make the U.S. into a hub for blockchain entrepreneurship.

  • That said, Axios didn't see many takers for the RFK flyers and swag his supporters were handing out.

The takeaway: The candidate tried to riff on crypto slang and Biden policy on stage, saying "BUIDL back better." But it wasn't selling in the rideshare pick-up area afterward.

  • Axios overheard one attendee conclude: "He was corny, man."
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