Ramaswamy, at Libertarian ‘PorcFest,’ Pledges To Pardon Imprisoned Founder of Dark Web’s Silk Road Marketplace

The GOP candidate for president earns applause after listing the persons — major causes for libertarians — that he says he will pardon.

Caroline McCaughey/The New York Sun
A Republican presidential candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy, speaks at PorcFest, Lancaster, New Hampshire, on June 24, 2023. Caroline McCaughey/The New York Sun

A Republican presidential candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy, is promising to pardon Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and, in a notable and perhaps surprising addition, the founder of “Silk Road,” a dark web marketplace that facilitated narcotic sales, Ross Ulbricht, in the unlikely event that he is elected president next year.

Mr. Ramaswamy made the commitments Saturday at PorcFest, the Free State Project’s annual camping and ideas festival in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The Free State Project is a movement to get “liberty lovers” to move to New Hampshire to influence state politics and create a libertarian homeland.

Around 7,000 persons, called Free Staters, have already moved to New Hampshire since the project was founded 20 years ago. The state’s house majority leader, Jason Osborne, is a Free Stater, and there are about 30 Free Staters in the 424-person legislature.

Polling at less than 3 percent in the crowded Republican field, Mr. Ramaswamy, a 37-year-old entrepreneur and author, made his pitch this weekend for New Hampshire’s libertarian vote. He emphasized his pledge to slash federal “alphabet soup” agencies, oppose a centralized digital currency, negotiate a settlement to the war in Ukraine, and fight the “deep state,” “deep corporate,” and the “bio-security state.”

The promised pardons, particularly of Mr. Ulbricht, drew raucous applause. Mr. Ulbricht’s mother, Lyn Ulbricht, attended PorcFest and met with Mr. Ramaswamy for a private talk on Saturday. There were several “Free Ross” banners around the campsite where the event was held.

Caroline McCaughey/The New York Sun
One of the ‘Free Ross’ banners seen at PorcFest. Caroline McCaughey/The New York Sun

In New Hampshire, a state with only 1.4 million people — where the margin of victory in elections is often in the hundreds of votes or low thousands — a well of 7,000 potential votes is significant. New Hampshire is the first-in-the-nation primary state, which means winning it or placing near the top can be the life raft for a long-shot bid like Mr. Ramaswamy’s.

“We’re going to need your help in doing it, in winning the New Hampshire Republican primary,” Mr. Ramaswamy told a crowd of PorcFest attendees under a tent set up by his campaign. “If I win the primary next February, I’m your next president of the United States.”

Mr. Ramaswamy then went on to list the persons — major causes for libertarians — that he said he would pardon. “Edward Snowden, Ross Ulbricht, Douglass Mackay. We’ll go down the list. People who are politically imprisoned in this country, on January 20, 2025, these will be free individuals,” he said. “But we’re going to need your help.”

Douglass Mackey, who went under the name “Ricky Vaughn” on Twitter, was convicted in March of the charge of Conspiracy Against Rights for a meme he posted ahead of the 2016 election urging Hillary Clinton voters to text their vote instead of casting a ballot. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

Mr. Ramaswamy added Julian Assange’s name to the list during an interview he gave at PorcFest with a libertarian Blaze TV host, Matt Kibbe. He also promised to pardon President Trump earlier this month, and called on other Republican presidential candidates to make the same pledge.

The commitment to pardon Ross Ulbricht, though, is the one that differentiates Mr. Ramaswamy from the pack. A Democratic presidential candidate, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., also spoke at PorcFest and committed to pardoning Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, but stopped short of promising to pardon Ross Ulbricht.

“I will immediately investigate this when I become president. I will. And if I find that Ross Ulbricht was punished as an example then I will give him clemency,” Mr. Kennedy said.

Ulbricht founded the black-market site, Silk Road, under the pseudonym “Dread Pirate Roberts” in 2011, when he was in his late 20s. Silk Road operated on what is often called the dark web, allowing users to buy and sell products anonymously using Bitcoin as a currency. The site was primarily used for illegal drug sales, and even had a Yelp-like system for rating the products.

Matt Kibbe, left, and Vivek Ramaswamy, at Porcfest.
Vivek Ramaswamy, center, at PorcFest. Caroline McCaughey/The New York Sun

In 2013, after an extensive investigation to uncover Silk Road’s operator, the FBI arrested Ulbricht at a San Francisco library and shut down the site. In the nearly three years it was in operation, there were more than 1.5 million transactions on Silk Road, with Ulbricht reportedly raking in millions in transaction fees.

In 2015, at the age of 31, Ulbricht was convicted on multiple counts, including engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, distributing narcotics through the internet, and conspiracy to commit money laundering. He was given two consecutive life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole. The judge who sentenced Ulbricht called him “the kingpin of a worldwide digital drug-trafficking enterprise.”

The government also alleged that Ulbricht spent $730,000 on a murder-for-hire plot that never occurred. Ulbricht was not charged with that crime.

Critics of Ulbricht’s sentence say the government went overboard in order to make an example out of him in the early days of cryptocurrencies and anonymous online transactions. A former Eagle Scout with a degree in physics, Ulbricht had never been in trouble before.

Among libertarians, freeing Ross Ulbricht has become a cause célèbre. They say that no person should be locked away for life for facilitating voluntary market transactions, and that his sentence is a symptom of drug prohibition, which they oppose. They also argue that regular drug dealers on the street are not punished so harshly.

Ross Ulbricht “was a young San Francisco nerd boy, and [Silk Road] provided a service people wanted. It showed a proof of concept for Bitcoin,” the chairwoman of the Free State Project, Carla Gericke, tells the Sun. “He seems like one of us.”

Ms. Gericke says Mr. Ramaswamy “did seem prepared on that issue” when he arrived at PorcFest, probably because Mr. Kennedy was asked about Ulbricht two days earlier at the event.

Mr. Ramaswamy’s commitment to pardoning Ulbricht was just one piece of his pitch to libertarians, albeit a popular one with the crowd. This is also not the first Free State Project event he has hosted as part of his campaign. He clearly sees a potential path to victory that includes a substantial portion of these votes — ones not committed to either President Trump or Governor DeSantis. 

“I have a policy in this campaign: It’s called the talk to everyone policy,” Mr. Ramaswamy tells the Sun. “I used to call myself a libertarian actually.”

The New York Sun

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