Why the Jan. 6 Committee is Interviewing Overstock’s Former CEO, Patrick Byrne

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TIME

Patrick Byrne, the founder of the online home goods store Overstock.com, has made strange headlines for decades: for dating a Russian spy; for mocking business rivals with Star Wars-based insults; for putting all his money into crypto and precious metals.

This month, Byrne is back in the news cycle, as the latest larger-than-life character in the ongoing saga of the Capital riot investigation. Byrne was one of President Trump’s most prominent corporate allies during his final days in the Oval Office, spreading conspiracy theories about election fraud to the public. In December 2020, Byrne came to the White House and participated in a pivotal meeting with Trump’s inner circle about ways in which the President might contest the election. On Friday, the House select committee will meet with Byrne privately to ask him about that night and its potential links to the insurrection.
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These developments have led some social media users to call for a boycott of Overstock. In turn, the company has emphatically distanced itself from him, repeatedly emphasizing that he resigned from the company in 2019 and has no remaining shares.

Here’s what to know about the polarizing former CEO.

Byrne has a long history of supporting dubious theories.

In 1999, Byrne founded Overstock.com and wielded his firebrand leadership style to help it grow into a retail giant. Byrne ferociously defended his company from rivals and skeptics: In the mid-00s, he filed several lawsuits accusing hedge funds of conspiring to bring down the company through naked short selling of shares, a largely illegal form of stock manipulation.

While many people dismissed his claims as ludicrous at the time, the 2007 financial crash revealed that short selling was, in fact, a common practice used by powerful firms to sway the market. The S.E.C. banned naked shorting, and Overstock won millions in settlements from its lawsuits, including against Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch.

Byrne’s victories in his fight against Wall Street seemed to have emboldened him into believing other bold theories. He filled his website, Deep Capture, with stories about mafia plots designed on his life. He alleged that Obama officials had attempted to set up a sting in 2016 against Hillary Clinton in order to control her while in office.

He bought a ranch in the Rockies and turned it into a doomsday hideaway complete with weapons stockpiles and food that would last for years, telling the New Yorker that it would be a “place to go when zombies walk the earth.” And in 2014, Overstock became the first major retailer to accept bitcoin for purchases.

In 2015, Byrne began dating a Russian woman named Maria Butina, who would later be arrested and spend more than a year in prison for conspiring to act as a foreign agent. (Officials say she spent the year before the 2016 election trying to befriend powerful conservatives.) In their relationship, it was unclear who was the mark and who was the con: Byrne, for his part, has said that he consistently reported Butina’s suspicious activities to the F.B.I. Around the time that their relationship became public in 2019, Byrne resigned as the head of Overstock.

While some of Byrne’s ideas and actions might have seemed outlandish to his colleagues and friends, his successful lone-wolf crusade against Wall Street years earlier had won him the respect and trust of many. In December 2020, Warren Buffett, Byrne’s former mentor, called him “very intelligent and patriotic” in a statement to the New Yorker.

In the same article, Jonathan Johnson, who succeeded Byrne as the C.E.O. of Overstock, said of Byrne and his conspiracy theories about the deep state: “From 2005 to 2008, he was made to look crazy, and in 2008 he was vindicated…I don’t know all the facts on this, as I did with the Wall Street stuff. But I do know Patrick, and it won’t surprise me at all if he is vindicated again.” (In a statement to TIME this week, an Overstock representative responded to a query regarding Johnson’s quote, saying, “Jonathan has had no contact with Patrick since well before the article you link was published. Clearly a lot has happened since 2020. Therefore, he cannot reaffirm his comment or comment further on this situation.”)

Byrne becomes involved in Trump’s efforts to retain the presidency.

In 2020, during the coronavirus outbreak, Byrne began giving anti-vaccine speeches and spreading misinformation about COVID-19 on websites and via social media. Following the presidential election, he appeared on podcasts and YouTube channels devoted to pro-Trump conspiracy theories. He also financed a film called The Deep Rig, which promoted false claims about the 2020 election. Byrne’s unsupported claims that Dominion’s voting machines were rigged led to the company filing a lawsuit against him, seeking $1.7 billion in damages.

On Dec. 18, as Trump and his team debated how to handle the upcoming transfer of power, Byrne was able to finagle his way into the White House and win the president’s ear. He argued that Trump should not concede until more investigations into voter fraud were completed.

Byrne documented the tense, hours-long meeting in an extensive blog post on Deep Capture. He wrote that he entered the White House thanks to being in the same party as General Michael Flynn, and that he directly advised Trump extensively. Byrne quotes Trump as saying, “Knowing I was cheated, that they rigged this election? How can I just walk away from that?”

It’s unclear how much of Byrne’s version is true, but other sources have confirmed that he was there, including former White House counsel Pat Cipollone. In a videotaped interview aired Tuesday during the hearing, Cipollone speaks dismissively of Byrne coming to the White House with Flynn and the lawyer Sidney Powell, saying: “First of all, the Overstock person — I didn’t even know who this guy was…I don’t think any of these people were providing the president with good advice. I didn’t understand how they had gotten in.”

The White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who was recently interviewed by the committee, described the Oval Office as being “UNHINGED” in a text message that night to another staffer. She wrote that alcohol was flowing freely among staffers, and the next morning, wrote: “Get this — the CEO of Overstock.com was also here!!!!! Dream team!!!!”

This week, representative Bennie Thompson, the committee’s chairman, told the New York Times that Byrne had agreed to come in for a transcribed interview. “We’re looking forward to that. He was one of the people in the White House late night talking about the stop-the-steal rally and other things,” Thompson said.

Overstock distances itself.

Following Cipollone’s description of Byrne as “the Overstock person,” he has often been characterized first by his affiliation to the company online. The link has led some people to say that they would cancel their subscriptions to the company.

In response, the company has gone to great lengths to make clear that Byrne is no longer part of the organization. “Overstock has no association or affiliation with Patrick Byrne and has not for almost three years,” the company wrote on Twitter. “His personal and political beliefs and actions are his own… We help our customers furnish their dream homes.” The company Twitter account has sent out over 70 tweets since Wednesday declaring that Byrne has no involvement with the company and no financial stake.

“Overstock has had outreach from some concerned individuals, largely in response to misinformation from some news outlets providing confusion about our current CEO vs our former CEO,” an Overstock representative wrote in an email to TIME. “Since Patrick Byrne has no current association or affiliation with Overstock – and hasn’t since 2019, over a full year before the 2020 election – our only involvement in this conversation is correcting false statements about our business.”

July 15, 2022 at 08:42PM Andrew R. Chow

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