The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What it means to be ‘Soros-backed’

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg participates in a news conference in New York on Feb. 7. (Seth Wenig/AP)
7 min

One of Donald Trump’s first responses to reports that he might soon face indictment by a grand jury empaneled by Manhattan District Alvin Bragg was to disparage the prosecutor as “Soros backed,” referring to left-wing philanthropist George Soros. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a likely opponent of Trump’s in the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, used the same term to refer to Bragg and Hillsborough County, Fla., state attorney Andrew Warren (in addition to pointedly referring to the scandal believed to be at the heart of the possible New York indictment).

The term has been common in response to the news of a possible indictment, offered by House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and commentator Ben Shapiro, among others. So it’s worth reflecting on what earned Bragg and Warren this appellation — and why it’s become so useful for Republicans and others on the right to deploy it.

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One of the useful characteristics of the term, certainly, is its vagueness. That suffix “-backed” can mean all sorts of things. It can mean, for example, that Soros gave money to a group that then backed a candidate who then won — as it does in the case of Bragg.

In mid-May 2021, as Bragg was jockeying for the Democratic Party’s nomination for New York County, N.Y., district attorney, a nomination that all but guaranteed election in the general, Soros contributed $1 million to the political arm of a group called Color of Change. Over the course of the next two weeks, the group ran an independent expenditure campaign including pieces of mail, text messages and encouragements to vote by mail. Most of that effort was earmarked for Bragg in campaign filings. Color of Change had announced its plans to spend $1 million on the race shortly before Soros’s contribution, but reportedly ended up spending only half that amount.

In the abstract, that’s pretty clear: Soros gave to Color of Change, who spent on Bragg. But of course, a lot of people made contributions to his campaign; he raised more than $2 million in direct contributions. It’s also not clear how much effect spending had. Bragg won the nomination by a bit more than 3 points over Tali Farhadian Weinstein, who gave herself $8.2 million in the last few weeks of the campaign, part of nearly $13 million she spent in total — more than all of the other candidates combined. And she came in second.

The path from Soros to Bragg, which we’ll come back to, is at least visible. In the case of Warren, it’s far sketchier.

Critics often point to an interview with the Tampa Bay Times published soon after Warren won. The attorney-elect was asked whether he’d been aided by Soros, as rumors late in the race had it.

“We think so,” Warren replied, adding that his campaign understood that Soros had given money to the state Democratic Party which then “went to support different candidates.”

Soros is listed as having given $50,000 to a political action committee in Florida in the 2020 cycle but not the party. That PAC is not identified as having contributed to the party. Two years previously, during the midterm elections, Soros gave to PACs that gave to the party.

When DeSantis first targeted Warren, a draft executive order removing him from his position repeatedly linked Warren to Soros, including by referencing the above comment. It also accused Warren of having “subordinated the people of the 13th Judicial Circuit to the ‘Fair and Just Prosecution’ (FJP) organization, which is affiliated with entities associated with activist George Soros.” FJP is a nonprofit advocacy organization; the “subordination” centered on signed pledges like one in which Warren stated he would “refrain from prosecuting those who seek, provide, or support abortions.”

You can see how this complicates the idea of being “Soros-backed.” Did Warren work with FJP or indicate his opposition to prosecuting those seeking abortion because he thought that Soros might have given money to the Democratic Party which then carved out some portion of that to aid Warren? (Incidentally, the Florida Democratic Party spent $18.4 million that cycle, so tracing some sliver of funding from Soros that became a sliver of funding for Warren would be tricky anyway.) Or did Soros back Warren (if Soros backed Warren) because Warren was the type of prosecutor who aligned with FJP’s outcomes? Did Bragg announce that he wanted to reimagine prosecutions in New York because of a second-order boost from Soros or did Soros donate to Color of Change because Bragg was the sort of candidate who would make such an announcement?

These accusations that candidates are “Soros-backed” suffers from a naivete that’s common in American politics. There’s an assumption that candidates receive contributions from donors and are then beholden to those donors’ interests. That’s rarely how the process works. Donors and politicians do at times work in symbiosis, with the former boosting the latter to advance desired outcomes the two share. More often (and more realistically), the concrete benefit received by campaign donors is access, getting to talk to a candidate at a dinner or quickly have a meeting set up with a senior staffer. This influences policy, certainly, particularly on subjects where the donor and not the politician is the expert.

Here, even that seems like an unlikely or unnecessary benefit. When Bragg announced his candidacy in 2019, he emphasized a focus on reforming how prosecutions worked. Was this because he knew Soros was going to give Color of Change $1 million nearly two years later? Was it because that future contribution, half of which was conceivably used for his benefit, earned Soros or some Soros aide a meeting?

The real reason Bragg and Warren are dismissed as “Soros-backed,” of course, is that it’s a useful shorthand for several of the right’s favorite targets.

Since Donald Trump was running for reelection in 2020, Republicans and their allies have accused officials in Democratic-run cities of being dangerously soft on crime, insisting then that too-liberal policies were leading to a surge in crime. (Once President Biden was inaugurated, blame trickled up to the federal level, too.) This was often linked to policies such as “defund the police,” which wasn’t broadly implemented, or more loosely credited to reforms like those proposed by Bragg.

That such reforms are in fact a focus of Soros’s activism is useful. Soros has been a focus of the right’s agitation for a long time, thanks to his deep pockets and unfettered spending. Consumers of right-wing media know what it means for something to be tied to Soros, and Soros’s involvement in prosecutorial reform efforts helped cast those efforts as suspect. Saying “Soros-backed” simply means “unacceptably left-wing” with no further delineation required.

Of course, there’s also the other reason that Soros is often a target: He’s Jewish. The Anti-Defamation League has documented ways in which anti-Soros rhetoric often intermingles with antisemitism and centuries-old antisemitic tropes; e.g., a powerful Jewish person seeking to reshape society. Fittingly, given that subtext, pejorative associations with Soros need not be direct. If you have support from Soros two steps removed, like Bragg or Warren (in theory), you are “Soros-backed” and therefore suspect.

There’s no reason to think that Bragg is targeting Trump or the Trump Organization because he was indirectly backed by Soros or because he is unusually left-wing. On the other hand, it’s quite obvious that the phrase “Soros-backed” is meant, as with Warren, to cast each as illegitimate and biased. To get Trump allies to view a potential indictment as tainted. Remember that since late 2016, Trump has also been engaged in a robust effort to reduce prosecutions. Unlike Soros, though, Trump’s efforts have been constrained to prosecutions targeting himself.