PARIS — Donald Trump's task on Tuesday should have been simple enough. Traveling to the storm-ravaged island of Puerto Rico, the American president was supposed to offer some comforting words, distribute emergency supplies, and commit the federal government to rebuild the U.S. territory as quickly as possible.
But rather than disaster relief, Trump was just a disaster. Instead of rehabilitating his image — after a series of insensitive tweets this past weekend aimed at a Puerto Rican mayor and two weeks of stoking racial tension over the national anthem at football games — he once again showed the world that he is unfit for office.
This, of course, also comes as the country is reeling from the worst mass shooting in modern American history on Sunday night. Hitting the right notes on that, likewise, was not in the offing. While departing the White House on his way to San Juan, he called the massacre in Las Vegas, which left 59 concert-goers dead, a "miracle," apparently as a way to praise local police efforts.
But it was in Puerto Rico where the "miscommunicator-in-chief" was in rare form. He chided the devastated island territory for throwing "our budget a little out of whack." (Needless to say, his cheeky joke didn't land.) He quickly followed up by telling the gathered crowd and media cameras that despite the toll — "what is your death count now? 16? 17?" (now up to 34) — that Hurricane Maria was not a "real" catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina. He then turned a photo op into a practice session of lazy jump shots with rolls of paper towel.
The president's comportment in Puerto Rico reveals a man seemingly bored — and quite possibly annoyed — by his duties as the Commander-in-Chief. He offered neither empathy nor reassurance. Perhaps he never intended to.
Leading a nation in these troubled times means that Trump has a somewhat similar job to do Wednesday in Las Vegas. Will he manage to comfort bereaved family members? Will he comfort a city in mourning? Can he find the right words? Will he try again to play politics in the wrong setting? Watching each stop on this trainwreck of a presidency is turning into a kind of grim parlor game: What will he be today, asshole or idiot?
It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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