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Americans are used to their country’s cultural and political life reflecting the beliefs and personal whims of a hyperwealthy class that’s beyond public scrutiny. A few levels below Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Rupert Murdoch there are so many astronomically rich attention entrepreneurs trying to manipulate the content and structure of the country’s information channels that it’s possible to stumble across a new one entirely by accident. One such surprise encounter with an infinitely moneyed, would-be media visionary explains why the publication of South Carolina-based writer and Tablet columnist Lee Smith’s next book was tied up in court for nearly a year.
In October of 2022, Smith filed a lawsuit against a publisher called All Seasons Press (ASP), to whom he had sold the rights to a book proposal based on a February 2021 essay he had written for Tablet. “The Thirty Tyrants” argued that Americans at the top of the financial, entertainment, and political industries had sold their country out to communist China. Unsurprisingly, according to an outline Smith submitted to an editor at ASP in July of 2022, one of the book’s targets would be George Soros, who in the 2010s lauded China’s “doctrine of harmonious development,” hailed the Chinese government as “better functioning” than its American counterpart, and advocated “partnership with China to avoid world war.”
Upon the launch of All Seasons Press in early 2021, The New York Times reported that the new publisher was “pitching itself as an alternative to mainstream houses” for pro-Trump or Trump-adjacent conservatives who the Manhattan-based “big five” now refused to publish. ASP appeared to be a natural home for Smith, whose 2019 book The Plot Against the President had presented a favorable look at Congressman Devin Nunes’ campaign to expose the origins of the investigation into President Donald Trump’s “collusion” with Russia. Under the leadership of Louise Burke and Kate Hartson, two former big-five editors—the latter of them Smith’s editor for The Plot—ASP would “publish the best writers, politicians and pundits in the conservative movement,” according to the June 2021 press release announcing the company’s founding.
In his October 2022 complaint, filed in the federal court system’s Eastern District of Virginia, Smith claimed that contrary to its right-wing, pro-Trump presentation, ASP is secretly owned and controlled by a longtime Soros associate named Scott Bessent. Bessent’s name did not appear in any of the media coverage of ASP’s launch or on ASP’s website and masthead, and Smith’s lawsuit alleged the company hid Bessent’s involvement from both Smith and from his literary agent, the Washington, D.C.-based Keith Urbahn. Bessent headed Soros’ London office for most of the 1990s and served as chief investment officer for Soros Fund Management from 2011 to 2015. He invested $2 billion of Soros’s money in 2015 to launch his own shop, Key Square Capital Management. Soros is perhaps America’s largest political donor, orchestrating some $21 billion in contributions to a range of progressive causes since 2000.
Per his lawsuit, Smith believed ASP acquired his book through fraud, by concealing that the publisher to which he had sold a work critical of Soros, “globalists,” and American high finance was in fact owned by a Soros protege and Wall Streeter with active investments in China. In the case’s complaint, Smith maintained that Bessent’s objections to the content of the planned book were the reason for ASP’s repeated attempts to strong-arm him into renegotiating his contract in the months after Hartson’s abrupt departure from the company, with the publisher eventually threatening legal action if Smith didn’t repay his advance along with an additional $30,000. Smith believed ASP misrepresented and concealed their true ulterior motive and intention, which was to contract with Smith and pay him an advance in order to “to take Smith’s book off the market and destroy its value.”
The Virginia suit swiftly concluded on the grounds that the court did not have jurisdiction over cases in which the parties were residents of the same state—Bessent, who was one of the suit’s original plaintiffs, also lives in South Carolina. Two weeks later, in early November of 2022, Smith refiled in Sarasota County in Florida, which is one possible venue for potential legal action offered in his contract with ASP. Two days after that, ASP sued Smith for breach of contract, claiming he had failed to honor his manuscript submission deadline. On Sept. 25, in the course of Tablet’s reporting, ASP suddenly offered that Smith drop his lawsuit against the publisher and pay ASP $115,000, which is the amount of Smith’s $350,000 advance that ASP had already paid him. In exchange, ASP would drop its lawsuit against Smith. The settlement has the effect of dissolving Smith and the company’s contractual obligations to one another—as a result of both cases concluding, the court lifted an 11-month-old, ASP-requested injunction against Smith marketing his book to other publishers.
In their responses to Smith’s Florida lawsuit, ASP and its lawyers denied that they intended to kill Smith’s book, characterizing such allegations as a conspiratorial “sham.” They alleged Smith had failed to produce a manuscript on a mutually agreed-to timeline. But the defense more or less conceded the truth of some of Smith’s major claims, namely that Bessent has a significant role in the publisher, and that his involvement was hidden from both Smith and from the public. “The fact that Mr. Smith was surprised to eventually come to learn the politics of a prominent person who financially supports ASP is irrelevant,” ASP’s lawyers at Rottenberg Lipman Rich wrote in a motion to dismiss the case. “ASP had no obligation to out its benefactor’s identity, his personal political and economic beliefs or his connection to ASP.” (Records of both Florida lawsuits can be accessed free of charge on the Sarasota County Court website. The case numbers are 2022 CA 005089 NC and 2022 CA 005031 SC.)
“The identity of who paid the bills in no way harms Mr. Smith,” the lawyers claim in a separate filing. “The fact that Mr. Bessent once worked for Mr. Soros’s investment company is immaterial as is the fact that Mr. Bessent did not broadcast his conservative political leanings and both facts are quite reasonable given that his personal politics might alienate others with differing views.”
It is always risky to extrapolate a coherent ethic from arguments hired lawyers make in lawsuits. But the claims made here are extravagant enough to invite the reader—whether they’re a judge, a journalist, or someone who is merely curious about reality—to consider their further implications. If a writer doesn’t need to know that the person publishing their book is a prominent individual with decadeslong ties to the country’s biggest political donor, as well as someone whose financial incentives and individual politics might be the opposite of what the book intends to argue, then the standard for anonymous citizens knowing the motives and origins of wealthy media funders, with whom they have no business relationship at all, must be even lower. Maybe nobody needs to know much of anything about the political impact of the very wealthy, so long as the wealthy person in question would rather their activities stay secret.
Since secrecy in media inevitably taints the product, I am happy to acknowledge that I have known Lee Smith for over a decade, been edited by him, and traveled to Saudi Arabia with him and several other Tablet contributors in March of this year. I see him in person once every two or three years. When I say there’s almost no one on whose behalf I’d blow my professional integrity, and that the people I’d even only hypothetically do that for are close family members who are personally much more important to me than Lee Smith, you will just have to believe me. But at least I’ve made a series of statements that you, the reader, can evaluate and perhaps even reject.
Bessent and ASP avoided making any statements at all, at least outside of the legal filings. On Aug. 17 I reached out to the author Chadwick Moore, who had recently published a biography of Tucker Carlson with ASP, to ask about his experience with the company. Moore had nothing but positive things to say about the press and put me in touch with Gray Delany, an editor for ASP and one of the architects of Tea Party upstart David Brat’s shocking win against House majority leader Eric Cantor in 2014. Delany referred me to Edward Preato, who, according to his affidavit in Smith’s lawsuit, is “Managing Member of ASP FinCo, LLC, which is the sole Member of plaintiff ASP.”
On Aug. 22, Preato recommended that ASP’s lawyers be put in touch with Tablet’s lawyers. “Some things seem completely made up out of left field,” he said of Smith’s complaint. However, Preato would not specify which things were made up. Were Smith and his lawsuit inaccurate on the specific question of Bessent’s supposed ownership of ASP? “On so many questions,” said Preato. “I won’t get into the specifics.” He then referred me to Mark Rottenberg at the Manhattan law firm of Rottenberg Lipman Rich, who was handling ASP’s side of the Smith litigation. “Get in touch with Rottenberg and then maybe we’ll have another conversation,” Preato said.
Rottenberg Lippman Rich were more than just ASP’s counsel in the various lawsuits involving Smith. In response to an interrogatory in Smith’s lawsuit, the defendant “Admit[ted] that ASP’s sole member and manager is ‘ASP FINCO, LLC,’ a Delaware limited liability company, whose address is a New York law firm with an office located at 230 Park Avenue, 18th Floor, New York, New York 10169.” This is Rottenberg Lippman Rich’s address.
Rottenberg declined to speak to me in any depth about any topic. “Our position is set forth in our papers,” he said. He did confirm that ASP and his own law firm shared an address, claiming that “when the corporation was formed that was just a registered agent address that was used—that’s it.” A corporation sharing its address with its registered agent is somewhat unusual, and really only makes sense in the context of a nesting ownership structure in which the registered agent owns the legal owner of the LLC, whose employees, finances, and business activities are all handled elsewhere. Who formed the corporation? I asked. “I’m not gonna comment on any of that. I think you can direct those questions to Sean.” It turned out that “Sean” was Sean Pattison of Abernathy PR, a publicity specialist who Rottenberg assured me would be calling within 36 hours.
Per his online biography at H/Advisors Abernathy, Pattison “began his career in the hedge fund industry at Soros Fund Management (SFM)” where he “served as the press secretary for its Chairman, Mr. George Soros.” Pattison also fulfilled the same role for longtime Soros partner Stanley Druckenmiller, who Bessent described as his “mentor” in a 2021 podcast appearance. According to a September 2022 Hedge Fund Alert newsletter published by the PR giant Longacre Square Partners, Abernathy’s “blue-chip client roster include[s] Key Square Capital,” which is Bessent’s fund.
When Pattison and I first spoke on Aug. 31, he made it clear he was getting in touch on behalf of All Seasons Press. The conversation ended with him saying he would have to confer with ASP to decide on whether they would be willing to communicate with me any further. After a brief second call with Pattison a week later which went nowhere, I called Preato on Sept. 11. He said he’d have to speak to Pattison—who was in theory his own LLC member’s external PR consultant—to remind him to get back to me. The next time I heard from Pattison was several weeks later, after I asked Preato, Pattison, and Rottenberg for comment when the cases with concluded.
Pattison turned out to be a longtime associate of Bessent’s who had worked on behalf of other companies the hedge funder apparently owns. He emailed an on-record statement to Tablet on Oct. 10. “All Seasons Press, LLC (‘ASP’) is pleased to announce that litigation between the company and author Lee Smith has been dismissed,” the statement read. “The case arose because Mr. Smith did not provide a full manuscript by the deadline in a publishing agreement with ASP, even after ASP extended the due date. When the parties reached no agreement on how to proceed, ASP demanded that he return his $115,000 advance in accordance with the publishing agreement. Instead of responding in a logical, honorable way, Mr. Smith through his lawyer threatened to expose well-known capital markets investor, philanthropist and educator Scott Bessent’s affiliation with ASP … In the end, judgment was entered requiring Mr. Smith to return the $115,000 advance, and he received nothing from ASP. There are no further terms. The transparent legal result speaks for itself.”
The statement went on to address Bessent’s relationship to ASP. “Until this case, the Bessent Family preferred to keep their support of ASP guarded—as it does with the nine other operating businesses it owns from agriculture to healthcare. In each instance, the Bessent Family employs professional managers and has little involvement in the day-to-day operations. The feckless Mr. Smith mistook discretion for stigma. The family’s intention is to promote authors and their opinions in a manner akin to a ‘modern-day Thomas Paine.’ We know today that the influencer of ‘Paine’ was Benjamin Rush, a wealthy man who adhered to the enlightened view that ideas should be judged for their value, not who backs them. ASP and the Bessent Family share this view.”
Both sides claimed victory when the litigation ended, as often happens when a lawsuit concludes without a final verdict. From Smith’s perspective, paying back the advance was a worthwhile price tag for winning back control over his book. “My book is about how the Chinese Communist Party impoverishes Americans and threatens our national security by working with elites in the United States across the political, corporate, and cultural establishment,” Smith explained by email. “The ties are deliberately opaque and obfuscated, and I spend enormous time tracing them and identifying key parts of that network. I’m glad to have the rights to my work back.”
All Seasons Press filled a market gap created in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, events at the U.S. Capitol. President Donald Trump’s alleged encouragement of a plot to violently disrupt the electoral vote count of an election he’d lost refocused American politics around questions of democratic continuity that Trump’s victorious opponents now cast in existential terms. One consequence of this shift toward branding Trump’s supporters as enemies of democracy and America was that the so-called “big five” publishers no longer wanted to take on the moral or reputational hazard of putting out books supportive of the 45th president, or even ones explicitly pitched toward his fans. Kate Hartson was believed to be the final Trump supporter in all of major Manhattan publishing when she left as editor of Hachette’s conservative imprint in February of 2021. Louise Burke, a former senior editor at Simon & Schuster, told The Wall Street Journal that she co-founded ASP with Hartson because she was “increasingly concerned and somewhat outraged about what’s going on in terms of free speech” at the major publishers. Simon & Schuster nixed a book from Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley in the weeks after January 6th, showing that not even nationally prominent elected officials were exempted from the industry’s new rules. “The great thing is we don’t work for a big media company any longer,” Burke told Fox Business Channel’s Stuart Varney in June of 2021. “We can’t be canceled—we’ve been canceled.” Burke added, “We’d be honored to publish Donald Trump.”
At Hachette, Hartson edited Lee Smith’s The Plot Against the President, a New York Times and Amazon bestseller about the spread of the Russiagate conspiracy theory that the director Amanda Milius adapted into a successful documentary film. In June of 2021, ASP secured Smith’s China book for a $350,000 advance and an additional $50,000 in research fees. Feminist gadfly Naomi Wolf got a similar amount from ASP for a book attacking the U.S.’s heavy-handed response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Smith’s court filings.
ASP and Smith finalized their contract in late August of 2021. In December, Keith Urbahn, Smith’s agent, who has negotiated book deals for an ideologically diverse range of political celebrities that includes James Comey, Tucker Carlson, and Donna Brazile, learned Hartson was no longer working at the press she had reportedly co-founded just five months earlier. Multiple sources in the conservative publishing world told Tablet that Burke also left ASP around the same time. According to Smith’s complaint, Hartson was fired “because of money spent on lunches and advances, in particular a $350,000 advance paid to Naomi Wolf.”
ASP, a new entrant in the ever-uncertain publishing market, parted ways with its founders and top editors within its first few months of existence. The press did not publish very many books after that. So far, they have released a total of eight titles: Wolfe’s COVID-19 book, Moore’s Carlson biography, memoirs from Trump loyalists Peter Navarro and Mark Meadows—the latter of them a plausible origin point for the investigation into Trump’s alleged mishandling of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate—books from Rush Limbaugh’s former producer and a canceled former Levi’s executive, and two nonpartisan books on interesting sounding but somewhat obscure topics related to economics. On Nov. 3, ASP sued Meadows for breach of contract. ASP claims that Meadows knew Joe Biden was the rightful winner of the 2020 presidential vote, meaning he had lied in his book when he argued the election had been stolen from Trump. This marks the second time in three years that ASP has found a reason to take one of its own writers to court.
“If it’s known for anything, it’s for being a bit of an enigma,” one conservative publishing figure said when I asked about ASP’s reputation in the right-wing book world. A.J. Rice, founder and CEO of Publius PR, helped promote some of ASP’s early releases. “I dealt with Kate and Louise, and then they were gone,” Rice recalled. “I didn’t hear from All Seasons for a while and out of the blue I got a call from Gray Delany,” who wanted Rice to handle publicity for Moore’s Tucker Carlson biography.
“Do they still exist?” Robert E. Wright asked when I mentioned I was writing about ASP, which published a biography of the mid-20th-century investing pioneer Wilma Soss that he co-wrote. “Somebody suggested to me that they didn’t. And I sent emails that went unanswered.” Wright said his agent found ASP, but there are cases of the press taking pitches directly from writers. “They were quick to accept my submission,” said John Tamny, who wrote a book for ASP about the cryptocurrency bubble. Peter Navarro, one of Trump’s top economic advisers, said ASP reached out to him about publishing his memoir of the Trump White House. “It was an outlet for conservative authors after the woke publishing industry shut many authors down,” Navarro told Tablet by email in September, adding “The New York Times refused to put In Trump Time on its bestselling list as a cancel culture attack.”
According to his court filings, Smith heard nothing from ASP in the three months after Urbahn informed him his editor had been fired. But in March of 2022, Smith received a letter from Preato informing him his manuscript was due the next month. This was a tough ask, considering Smith’s editor had vanished and he and Urbahn were unsure of whether ASP was even interested in the book anymore. On a call one week later, “Preato stated that ASP still wanted to publish the book, but wanted to speak with the ‘publisher,’ Bessent,” according to the complaint. “This was the first time Urbahn and Smith had ever heard Bessent’s name.”
Scott Bessent became famous within rarefied financial circles for his part in one of the most celebrated trades in history. In 1992, the 29-year-old head of Soros Fund Management’s London office noticed that almost all British home mortgage rates were floating and readjusted on a weekly basis, meaning that the Bank of England likely had a ceiling on how high it could raise interest rates to protect the value of the pound before it risked a crisis in the so-called “real” economy. If the pound became so unstable that the United Kingdom left the European Exchange Mechanism, which pegged the pound to the deutsche mark, the currency would collapse on the open market and the bank would have very limited ability to revalue it. Soros took out a massive position against the pound, crashing the currency on Wednesday, Sept. 16 and making his fund over $1 billion, a quaintly large amount of money back then.
At the time of Soros’ historic raid on the pound, he and Bessent were close enough that the two of them played tennis together at Soros’ house in London that Sunday, with “cameramen and paparazzi waiting out front,” as Bessent told an interviewer in 2006. When he left Soros Fund Management in 2015, Bessent launched his own fund on the back of a $2 billion investment from his former boss. Soros had reportedly withdrawn most of this money by early 2018, although this means that perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars belonging to the largest liberal donor in history were under the management of a former protege who was then in the course of becoming a mid-to-large money contributor to establishment Republicans. Bessent gave $125,000 to Paul Ryan’s PAC in the first half of 2017, along with $150,000 to the RNC that October (the Federal Election Commission website lists Bessent’s employer as Soros Fund Management for those RNC donations, although it is unclear why).
Bessent hadn’t always been a conservative donor. For much of the 21st century he gave to liberal causes, including a couple closely associated with Soros himself. From 2014 until 2020, Bessent is listed in International Crisis Group publications as a member of the organization’s President’s Council, a “distinguished group of individual and corporate donors providing essential support and expertise to Crisis Group” that also included Alex Soros, George Soros’ son. The Soroses and their philanthropic arm have given some $75 million to ICG, per the left-wing conflict research and peace advocacy organization’s website. Bessent has given a much more modest $250,000. In 2002 Bessent was in the $25,000-$99,000 donation tier for Human Rights Watch, another Soros mainstay. In January of 2001, Out magazine’s announcement of Bessent as part of its Out 100 list of prominent American gays and lesbians reported that the Soros protege had hosted a fundraiser for Al Gore that summer. It also identified him as a “major donor” to Hillary Clinton’s senate campaign. Bessent contributed $184,755 to various state and local Democratic Party committees between 2000 and 2004, according to the Federal Election Commission’s website. However, after a $25,000 donation to the Ready for Hillary PAC in 2013, his giving to Democrats ceased.
There is little in Bessent’s publicly available history that suggests any specific ideological commitments at either end of the political spectrum. He donated to opponents of Donald Trump in 2016, giving $350,000 to John Kasich’s super PAC at a time when the Ohio governor had no conceivable path to victory against Trump in the Republican primary. Bessent did not donate to Trump in either the 2016 or 2020 campaigns. But he is comfortable with the Trump-era GOP, having handed over a total of $1.1 million to the RNC, RNCC, and RNSC in the seven years since Trump’s election.
Clues as to how a center-left Soros lieutenant became a million-dollar GOP donor and the secret funder of a reportedly pro-Trump publishing house are scattered across the few interviews and articles Bessent has produced over the past 20 years. Smith’s suit claimed that Bessent is a “progressive,” but there is nothing in his history, besides the Soros association, to suggest he is now a secret holder of left-wing beliefs. Instead it is possible, though by no means certain, that the quantitative easing policy championed by then-President Barack Obama pushed Bessent to the right. In 2017, Bessent shared his fear with author David Smick that cheap money and low interest rates had fed a disastrous glut of corporate debt. “The next downturn will be worse because corporate balance sheets are now a lot more fragile,” said Bessent. In a rare op-ed last year, Bessent blamed Biden’s policies for the severity and persistence of inflation in the U.S.
Perhaps Bessent is a standard-issue center-right debt hawk who worries that liberals are despoiling the currency, bankrupting future generations, and priming the market for ever more catastrophic failures. That’s the impression of author H. Woody Brock, who described Bessent as “someone I’ve advised in business, as an economist,” although he clarified they are not close friends. “Normal reasonable people, and I would include Scott, are horrified by the financial implications of progressive left-wing policies,” Brock said. “They’re far worse than all the Republican sins put together in terms of who they will affect.”
It is also possible Bessent has a settled and coherent worldview that became gradually more at home within the political right as it became more alienated from the liberal center. This worldview stands against the demand that every last individual belief, preference, and action be weighed against uncompromising standards of social justice, and instead treats financial investments as morally neutral and far downstream of the world’s real problems. In 2006, Bessent sat for an extensive interview with the author and investor Ted Seides, with whom Bessent would launch a fund later in the decade. Bessent’s future business partner was able to get the sometimes-taciturn investment star talking about his career and the world in general in unusually candid terms. In his book, Inside the House of Money, Seides wrote that Bessent is “unassuming” and “prefer[s] reading to talking,” which is a polite way of saying that the hedge fund titan, whose speech can seem clipped and unanimated, presents as being fairly boring and even slightly anonymous. In his fund’s Fifth Avenue office “you could hear a pin drop,” while the hushed atmosphere and piles of print media gave the place a “cerebral, Ivy League demeanor.” There was no raucous trading floor, no blinking screens. In a 2018 interview with Australian media, Bessent claimed he doesn’t have a Bloomberg terminal.
Bessent told Seides he had wanted to be a journalist when he attended Yale in the early 1980s. The summer before his senior year Bessent interned for Jim Rogers, who had co-founded Quantum Fund with George Soros a decade earlier, and discovered that formulating trades for a hedge fund is “just like journalism—you gather a lot of information and make a decision, but instead of writing a story with an angle, you make an investment with an angle.” In Bessent’s telling, what set George Soros apart was his quasi-reckless belief in his angle. Seventy percent of Soros’ trades would be failures, Bessent said; the other 30% made him billions. Breaking the Bank of England was Stan Druckenmiller’s idea, said Bessent. “Soros’s contribution was pushing him to take a gigantic position … George used to say, ‘If you’re right in a position, you can never be big enough.’”
In a 2021 appearance on the RenMac Legends podcast, Bessent recalled attending a meeting of fund managers in Lake Como shortly after the 2016 Brexit vote. “I was the only manager who thought everything could be OK,” Bessent recalled. “Why did it matter if the U.K. leaves the EU?” He continued: “I think probably Scotland’s gonna leave the U.K., and who cares? I think it could make the pound go down first, and then it will be Tory governments for the rest of [our lives] if it’s just England and Wales, cuz England is a center-right country, and it’ll be a home run. But, you know, there will be a panic beforehand.” Separate from the question of whether these developments would be good for the societies involved or for the world at large, the breakup of the EU and U.K. created fascinating new investment opportunities for people measured enough to bet against the rest of the elite’s alarm.
A philosophy of intense skepticism of moral panics in pursuit of a gaudy bottom line can be glimpsed across Bessent’s portfolio. In the third quarter of 2018, Key Square held a $35 million position in the tobacco giant Philip Morris, according to the fund’s required 13F disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Key Square invested over $6 million in ammunition manufacturer Olin Corp in the second quarter of 2022, a time of growing concern about crime rates. In the third quarter of 2022 Key Square invested a combined $13 million in Peabody Energy and Arch Resources, the two largest coal producers in the United States. Tobacco, bullets, and high-polluting nonrenewable energy encompass three of the chief evils that the establishment center-left yearns to eradicate. It is a credit to Bessent’s careful management of his public image that there have been no articles accusing him of plowing his profits from lung cancer, mass shootings, and the destruction of the environment into support for the Republican assault on democracy. “He’s a gentleman,” said Brock. “And gentlemen have the moral integrity to know: Don’t show off. I’ve never seen him show off.”
Bessent is an unusual case of someone who invests and donates like a conservative but maintains his status within more liberal spaces. He chairs the investment committee at Rockefeller University, the medical research institute in Manhattan, and sits on the Yale University Council. He is careful not to say anything inflammatory, even in private, even with people he seems to like and trust. John Tamny said he spoke to Bessent as he was developing his book for ASP. “He took the time to learn about me,” Tamny recalled. They disagreed on the causes and effects of inflation, but, Tamny said, “We never talked about Joe Biden or Donald Trump—that’s usually what comes up nowadays.”
Unfettered liberal-establishment moralism presents a possible threat to Bessent’s investment strategy, but he might also have had his own personal harsh experience fighting the rising moral order. Bessent was one of the leading supporters of Stuart Johnson, the longtime headmaster of the exclusive St. Bernard’s School in the Upper East Side, who left under ambiguous circumstances in 2020. Early that year, Bessent claimed that a donation boycott he’d called for had already led to $500,000 in revoked pledges to the school.
Whatever his real views, and whatever the reasons behind them, Bessent has won the public loyalty of one major Trump world figure. “Scott’s a visionary who keeps his hands off the day to day,” Peter Navarro wrote by email, later adding: “If you are working up a hit piece on him, I’m not your guy.” (A few weeks later, Navarro was convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to testify before the January 6th Select Committee). Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon has told at least one person he is in business with Bessent. In their defense of Smith’s lawsuit, ASP requested that Smith produce details of his own communications with Bannon that related to U.S.-China issues. Smith had interviewed Bannon before and appeared on his podcast. (Bannon could not be reached for comment.)
Bessent has been taciturn about China as he has been about most other topics. Woody Brock got the impression the rise of Xi Jinping had soured Bessent on the country as an investment target. “What does [Bessent] think is the reason for China’s problems?” Brock asked rhetorically. “Now that is an issue I have talked to him about. The reason isn’t the stuff you hear about every day. It’s that China’s 35-year trajectory to glory was under a person who understood you needed a measure of personal and market freedom. When you replace somebody like that with a torturing crooked thug like President Xi, you can prove, even mathematically, that this will kill an economy.”
Bessent’s skepticism of Xi-era China doesn’t appear to be absolute, though. Key Square held $19 million in the Chinese online content companies Bilibili and Iqiyi in early 2018, while in the first quarter of 2020, Key Square invested a combined $74 million in Chinese e-commerce giants Alibaba and JD.com, a potentially smart move during a time when much of the Chinese population was prohibited from going outside. For the first quarter of this year, Key Square’s single largest position, worth some $26 million, was in a Blackrock-managed large-cap fund of 50 major Chinese companies that included Petrochina Limited, the Bank of China, and China Overseas Land Investment Limited. Though it remains a possibility this investment was part of a sophisticated short-sell, Bessent’s fund was still eyeing a massive purchase of a Blackrock China-focused investment product sometime in late 2022 or early 2023, which is about when litigation with Smith began. Blackrock, like George Soros and Yale President Peter Solovey, got its own special mention in Smith’s mid-2022 book outline.
Smith and Bessent met face-to-face in the hedge fund manager’s office in downtown Charleston on April 21, 2022. Bessent was so elusive throughout the lawsuit that Steve Biss, Smith’s lawyer at the time, made five unsuccessful attempts to serve him with notice he was being sued. Thus the only existing version of Smith’s conversation with Bessent comes from Smith’s written answers to a defendants’ interrogatory.
Bessent “stated that Soros was opposed to the Chinese regime as it threatened global peace,” Smith recalled. If Bessent was similarly opposed, it did not stop him from putting tens of millions of dollars into state-connected Chinese companies less than a year later. Bessent also came to the defense of Steve Bannon during the meeting. “He said it was notable that Soros and Steve Bannon (‘Bannon’) agreed on the dangers of China,” wrote Smith. Earlier this year, Bannon business partner Miles Guo, who according to a 2022 New Yorker story has links to Chinese intelligence, was charged in the U.S. with orchestrating an alleged $1 billion fraud scheme. Smith recalled that in their meeting, Bessent “expressed a belief that Bannon’s then-financial backer, indicted People’s Republic of China (PRC) national Ho Wan Kwok (aka ‘Miles Guo’), an alleged Chinese intelligence asset, was a ‘double or triple agent.’”
The meeting was not so strange that Smith thought it necessary to get out of his contract with ASP. He continued working on the book with Harry Stein, a new editor ASP had provided, confident he would get an extension on an August deadline that Smith considered to be arbitrary, as deadlines in publishing tend to be. Requests for deadline extensions are common in the book industry, and it is almost unheard of for such a routine ask to result in legal threats. In late August of 2022, Delany informed Smith he would have to turn in his full manuscript. He would also no longer be paid the remaining $235,000 of his advance, but would instead be compensated on some unspecified royalty basis. In a Sept. 8 letter to Smith informing him he was in breach of his contract, Preato wrote that “All Seasons Press is interested in continuing to work with you to bring this project to completion under the amended terms that Gray Delany discussed with you.” The letter, which declared the termination of the book deal, demanded Smith repay the $115,000 he had already received from the publisher, along with $30,000 in research fees Smith had supposedly spent. Smith’s publisher was ordering him to pay $145,000 in order to then write the rest of his book in exchange for an unknowable amount of money.
On Oct. 3, Eric R. Pfeffer of Rottenberg Lipman Rich sent Smith a letter officially notifying him that ASP considered him to be in breach of his contract and that he had until Oct. 13 to pay ASP $145,000. Keith Urbahn, Smith’s agent, wrote to Pfeffer and Gray Delany on Oct. 7. “I’ve negotiated more than 200 book deals and been in the publishing business for more than a decade,” Urbahn began. “Never have I received a letter like yours.
“To cancel a book summarily, a) without warning to an author, b) after months when All Seasons was incommunicado and our author was without any editorial guidance after his editor was fired from All Seasons Press, and c) there were numerous opportunities for your editorial team to review the chapters of the book and the feedback on its substance was nothing but positive, is unprecedented in this industry. And to do so with wildly inaccurate information—to wit, your charge that Lee received $30,000 in funds to support the book’s research (false; neither he nor our agency has received any such money)—makes it even more unprofessional.
“Bottom line: this is an odd route for any publisher to take: unnecessarily litigious, and devoid of basic courtesies and business ethics. Is this something that Scott Bessent wants known about how he and his companies conduct business?” Still, Urbahn said that both he and his client were “open to discussing how a portion of the advance gets paid back on a reasonable time scale while we find another publisher.” This seemed unlikely: “I’ve called Mr. Delany twice this week and left messages to discuss such matters, but I’ve heard nothing back from him or anyone representing All Seasons Press. It appears you have no interest in a solution.”
An official threat came from Pfeffer on Oct. 18. “The deadline for Mr. Smith to repay the Company expired on October 13, 2022. If payment for the advance is not received by the end of this week, the Company intends to commence a lawsuit against Mr. Smith to recover the advance, as well as all of its out-of-pocket costs incurred in connection with the Book and its attorneys’ fees.”
After consulting Steve Biss, an experienced litigator and the former lawyer for Devin Nunes, Smith decided he wouldn’t wait for ASP to sue him first. He filed suit in federal court in Virginia the same day he received Pfeffer’s letter. He then refiled in Florida on Nov. 1. ASP sued Smith on Nov. 3. (Biss had to withdraw as counsel due to health issues in late August and is now off the case.) ASP was granted an injunction preventing Smith from attempting to sell his book for as long as the litigation continued. Intentional or not, the end result of ASP’s treatment of Smith is that his criticism of Blackrock, George Soros, and Yale for their alleged closeness with the Chinese regime got delayed for at least a year and will be published within the haze of a different, future political atmosphere.
In his 2021 podcast appearance, Bessent recalled his despair at seeing the damage in New York during the “protests that turned to riots that turned to looting” in 2020. “It broke my heart,” he said, to see “Madison Avenue boarded up and the place that I’d called home for 30 years that had been great to me ...” Bessent cut himself off, abjuring any additional honesty. “It was heartbreaking to see what happened in the nation’s capital. I don’t think we’re going to be able to call timeout on this.”
Only Bessent knows whether he invested in right-wing publishing and tangled with Lee Smith out of some obscure yet firm inner principle—perhaps he believes he possesses a unique vision of how to triumph over an era of oncoming crisis. Or maybe Bessent had a more cynical profit motive, or wanted to keep opinions he disagreed with from seeing the light of day, as Smith’s lawsuit claimed. The important thing is Smith’s lawyers no longer have a reason to depose him. So he’ll never have to tell anyone.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.