The FTX trial, days 15–16: Sam Bankman-Fried doesn't recall
Bankman-Fried comes off as sullen and cagey in his cross-examination in front of the jury.
Faced with few promising defense strategies to pick from, Sam Bankman-Fried seems to have chosen... amnesia. Though Bankman-Fried was perfectly capable during his direct testimony of recalling fairly mundane events from as far back as his intern days, recounting last week the details of training he received a decade ago at Jane Street, his memory suddenly failed him when it came to far more recent, highly important, and (you would think) memorable moments during his leadership of the FTX crypto exchange.
Sometimes he seemed to simply be stalling: asking Assistant US Attorney Danielle Sassoon to specify a date range or additional context for a given question, only to eventually respond that, well, no, actually, he couldn't recall any incidents of the sort she'd specified during any time or in any context.
Sometimes he quibbled about phrasing, seemingly hoping that if Sassoon wasn't quoting him directly, perhaps he could escape her relentless interrogation. It didn't work.
AUSA Sassoon: While you were CEO of Alameda, you also claimed that Alameda had no special privileges on FTX, didn't you?
Sam Bankman-Fried: I'm not sure about the phrasing.
Sassoon: In substance, did you claim that Alameda had no special privileges on FTX?
Bankman-Fried: I'm not sure. I don't remember doing so in those words.
Sassoon: Do you remember doing so in other words?
At least once, he objected to having used specific phrasing only for Sassoon to pull up evidence that he had, in fact, said those exact words.
But to Bankman-Fried, the possibility of being challenged on his unbelievably — literally, unbelievable — poor memory must have been preferable to lying under oath, or acknowledging having said something and opening the door for Sassoon to bombard him with further questions about his state of mind and the extent of his knowledge at that time.
Unfortunately, it was the best of several extremely poor options available to him, and it made him seem evasive and untrustworthy.
Now that the prosecution has compiled testimony from multiple FTX executives and other employees, corroborated with a trove of Signal chats and tweets and spreadsheets and internal notes, Sam Bankman-Fried must convince the jury that there is sufficient doubt in that story that they cannot find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
But with his apparent new memory problems, it’s a tall order to ask them to trust that he recalls precisely the details of the same conversations that Caroline Ellison, Gary Wang, and Nishad Singh recounted on the stand, with enough clarity that he can confidently refute their versions of events — events typically involving Bankman-Fried directly instructing them to do illegal things, discussing his complete knowledge of the squandered FTX customer funds, or privately contradicting the statements he was presenting publicly.
Although the content of Bankman-Fried’s answers on the stand has been about as good as it can get for him — evasive but not necessarily falsifiable, and more brief compared to the long-winded replies he offered to cross-examiners during his Thursday proffer hearing — his demeanor has been far from it.
He is upbeat and frankly chatty when replying to softballs from his own defense team, but his mood shifts dramatically when Danielle Sassoon is the one peppering him with questions. Clearly frustrated with his inability to truly explain himself at the both length and breadth he generally desires, he comes off as sullen and insolent.
At one point, after Sassoon cornered him when he tried to deny that FTX’s “key principles” document referred to principles FTX was offering its customers, he was asked to read aloud a portion of the document. Visibly frustrated, he obliged, but in a mocking, almost sing-songy voice: “And how FTX offers those protections today with the direct membership model.”
Often he would answer a string of questions in the exact same words, for example repeating “No, but I may have” in reply to four questions in a row. At other times he replied with only a staccato “yip”, with an air of annoyance, seeming to be suggesting to the prosecutor: “would you just get on with it?”
Perhaps coached to try to make eye contact with the jury, his eyes dart between the prosecutor and the juror box with such speed that it makes him look almost as though he is panicked and searching for an exit door through which to make an escape.
Tuesday brought only a short period of continued cross-examination before Bankman-Fried was once again allowed to answer questions posed by his own defense team, and we once again saw him perk up and even begin smiling when his attorney Mark Cohen replaced Sassoon at the lectern.