His eyes are fixed in an icy stare, his lips curl toward a snarl.
Beneath the frosty-blue portrait is a warning: “Foreign Influence in US Elections.”
What follows is a brief dossier on the mysterious figure in the picture — a “radical” Swiss billionaire with a “dark money ATM” and a secret plan for America, it says.
Meet Hansjörg Wyss, the man US conservatives are casting as a new George Soros, the businessman-turned-philanthropist who has become a familiar villain for the right.
The eight-page report was prepared by Americans for Public Trust, a group linked to Leonard Leo, the influential conservative operative.
And it illustrates how Republicans are trying to paint Wyss as their next left-wing Svengali.
As the 2024 US presidential election looms, so do sobering questions about the potential for more election interference. The US intelligence community has warned that Russia is again using spies, social media and state-run media to undermine democratic elections around the world.
But the conservative campaign against Wyss offers a glimpse into something closer to home: how hard-to-trace “dark money” is wielded on both the right and the left in today’s polarized America.
On one side are operatives like Leo, who spent decades pushing US courts to the right and now is raising millions for groups aiming at abortion rights, climate-change initiatives and what conservatives see as “woke” corporations and schools.
On the other are donor-influencers like Wyss, a longtime patron of causes related to the environment and healthcare. Wyss, 88, has few known connections to Soros, other than a shared environmental agenda. But his wealth has percolated for years through the liberal ecosystem, even as Democrats have decried the dark money in US politics, which allow politically active groups to shield the identity of donors. On the right, his politics, wealth and foreign origins inevitably prompt comparisons to Soros. Soros, who is Jewish and a Holocaust survivor, was born in Hungary. Attacks against him have often been viewed as antisemitic.
“The best kind of defense is offense,” Caroline Fredrickson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York think tank, said of the conservative push. Republican power-players like Leo want to take the spotlight off themselves and train it on wealthy liberals like Wyss, she said. Fredrickson has worked for organizations, including liberal think tank Demos, that have received funding from Wyss.
Wyss and Leo declined to be interviewed for this story. As Leo faced scrutiny over his ties to conservative Supreme Court justices last May, he told the New York Times, “It’s high time for the conservative movement to be among the ranks of George Soros, Hansjörg Wyss, Arabella Advisors and other left-wing philanthropists, going toe-to-toe in the fight to defend our Constitution and its ideals.”
APT paid over $480,000 to CRC Advisors, Leo’s consulting firm, last year, according to tax filings. It receives nearly all of its money from DonorsTrust, a conservative fund that has received hundreds of millions of dollars from Leo-linked groups, the filings show.
No one disputes that Wyss, a Swiss national who lives in Wilson, Wyoming, has donated a lot of money in the US. He certainly has a lot of money to give away. The founder of Synthes Holdings AG, a medical-device manufacturer, and a co-owner of the UK’s Chelsea FC, Wyss is worth more than $10 billion, $3 billion more than Soros, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Wyss sold Synthes Holdings to Johnson & Johnson for $19.7 billion in cash in 2012.
Since 2016, Wyss’s Washington-based philanthropy, the Wyss Foundation, has donated more than $807 million in the US, mainly to environmental causes, according to a Bloomberg News analysis of tax filings. Over the same period, the foundation’s advocacy and lobbying arm, the Berger Action Fund, has given more than $343 million to liberal groups, among them ones fighting Republican efforts to gerrymander electoral districts and funding Democratic super PACs.
Both Wyss groups say they restrict donations from being used to directly influence US political campaigns or benefit particular candidates. Federal law prohibits foreign nationals from directly or indirectly making contributions or donations in connection with any federal, state or local elections or advertisements promoting US political candidates.
At the same time, Wyss has sat near the center of concentric circles of influence. He’s member of the board of the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the Democratic establishment. He has disclosed giving over $208 million to Sixteen Thirty Fund, a clearing house for the left that doesn’t disclose its funders.
Sixteen Thirty said in a statement that it hasn’t used any money from Wyss for election work. Fund for a Better Future, a left-leaning grantmaking organization, said it “carefully manages and monitors” its funding to ensure Wyss’s money is not used for electoral purposes.
Marneé Banks, a spokeswoman for the two Wyss nonprofits, said they both “prohibit grants from being used to support or oppose political candidates or parties or otherwise engage in electoral activities.”
Even before Soros, 93, announced last year that he would step back from his political network, conservatives were hunting for a supposed villain to replace him.
“The New George Soros,” another conservative watchdog group, Capital Research Center, branded Wyss in 2022.
Americans for Public Trust brought a complaint to the Federal Election Commission in 2021 alleging Wyss’s groups were violating US campaign finance regulations prohibiting contributions from foreign nationals.
The FEC investigated and in 2022 found no evidence of wrongdoing, although the agency’s general counsel faulted the groups for failing to provide evidence of the “restrictive grant agreements.” The same year, FEC cited Wyss for making $119,000 in direct political contributions in violation of federal law over the course of some 16 years. The commission declined to take action because the statute of limitations had expired. Neither Wyss group has been accused by federal authorities of misusing their status as tax-exempt nonprofits.
Banks, the spokeswoman for the Wyss groups, said “dark-money interests” are spreading misinformation about Wyss and disparaging his philanthropic efforts in areas like conservation and health care. His nonprofits fully comply with US law, she said.
Wyss’s declarations haven’t dissuaded conservative groups from going after him. “Time and time again, Wyss has made broad claims without any evidence, and now he is attacking the only public report exposing his political activity,” said Caitlin Sutherland, executive director of APT. “Wyss has openly bragged about being able to operate under the radar, and is upset after being exposed.”
Scott Walter, president of the Capital Research Center, says the suggestion that Wyss doesn’t influence US politics is “laughable on its face.”
APT, however, has no evidence that Wyss crosses any lines. Walter said he’s frustrated that the billionaire hasn’t provided evidence that he isn’t exerting influence.
“You just have to take their word for it,” Walter said. “If there are truly restrictions or safeguards in place, that should be easy for them to prove.”
Republicans on Capitol Hill have been going after Wyss too. Several House committees have announced they’re looking into the Swiss billionaire and his influence. The House Ways and Means Committee is considering whether the law should prevent foreign nationals from creating tax-exempt advocacy groups. An election-reform bill co-sponsored by 127 House Republicans would bar all tax-exempt entities from spending money from foreign nationals on US elections. Such proposals have little chance of clearing the Democratic-controlled Senate.
“The only people that should be influencing the outcomes of American elections are Americans,” said Representative Jason Smith, the Missouri Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means panel and an ally of former President Donald Trump who has criticized the politically fraught investigation into election meddling by Russia.
Mary Ziegler, a law professor at University of California, Davis, who’s studied money in politics, says conservatives had to villainize Soros for years before they could turn him into a bogeyman for the hard right. Today, Republicans are “test-driving” Wyss and others to see who might become their next Soros.
“Replacing him is not going to be an overnight thing,” Ziegler said.