Peter Thiel, Trump adviser, has a backup country: New Zealand
SAN FRANCISCO — Peter Thiel is a billionaire, the biggest Donald Trump supporter in Trump-hating Silicon Valley, and, above all, someone who prides himself on doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing.
So it makes perfect sense that right after Trump proclaimed that “the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America,” Thiel was revealed to have become in 2011 a citizen of a small country on the other side of the world: New Zealand.
In these uncertain times, it may be smart to have a backup country. But the news that one of the richest citizens of New Zealand is a naturalized American who was born in Germany set off an immediate furor in the island nation, with questions being raised about whether being a billionaire gets you special treatment.
If you like New Zealand enough to want to become a citizen, the country’s Department of Internal Affairs noted Wednesday, you are usually supposed to actually live there. Thiel does not appear to have done this.
The investor, who retains his US citizenship, was one of the biggest backers of Trump during the presidential campaign. Thiel reveled in his unusual position, giving a speech shortly before Election Day outlining the reasons for his support. He was vilified for it in tech circles.
Thiel, worth a reported $2.7 billion, was a founder of the online payments site PayPal and the data company Palantir. He secretly funded the lawsuit that killed off Gawker, the network of gossip sites that outed him as gay.
When Trump won, Thiel emerged as a key adviser. He has spent much of the time since the election in New York, advising the transition team. His recommendations are under consideration for significant jobs.
As a byproduct, he has become famous, a fate many of his peers in Silicon Valley would go out of their way to avoid. Thiel has been reported as a possible Supreme Court justice, as a potential candidate for governor of California, and, most recently, as Trump’s potential ambassador to Germany.
Thiel’s admiration for New Zealand is longstanding. “Utopia,” he once called it. He has an investment firm in the country that has put millions into local startups. He also owns lavish properties there, which his Silicon Valley friends hope to fly to in the event of a worldwide pandemic.
But actually becoming a citizen of New Zealand? That was a surprise, and it makes for an odd juxtaposition with Trump, who has chastised companies for investing in other countries and said Friday, “From this moment on, it’s going to be America first.”
A spokesman for Thiel declined to comment.
Thiel’s citizenship came to light when an investigative reporter for The New Zealand Herald was looking into an estate that Thiel bought in the country in 2015 for somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million. It appeared to come under the category of “sensitive land” under the Overseas Investment Act, which requires foreigners to seek official permission.
But Thiel did not need permission, the reporter found, because he was already a New Zealand citizen.
New Zealand’s typical process for citizenship is that people live in the country for the majority of the time — at least 70 percent — of a five-year period.
“It just seems very, very unlikely that Thiel lived in New Zealand for the majority of his time for the five years preceding 2011 and went unnoticed,” Iain Lees-Galloway, a spokesman for the Labour Party, said in an interview.
If Thiel was not a resident in New Zealand for the amount of time that is ordinarily required for someone to be able to gain citizenship, the government can make an exemption in particular circumstances. The government has not responded to questions about whether that happened and, if so, what the reason was.
Perhaps Thiel’s interest in New Zealand is a way of hedging his bets on the future. But there is another possibility. Thiel is a huge fan of “The Lord of the Rings” and has named investments after elements of the J.R.R. Tolkien epic — Mithril, Palantir, and, in New Zealand itself, Valar.
New Zealand, of course, was where director Peter Jackson made his acclaimed films of the series. Becoming a citizen might be the next best thing to living in Middle-earth itself.