Tech CEOs making the weary (and increasingly wary) pilgrimages to Washington, DC at the behest of the White House may now be having second thoughts. Since winning the presidency last November, US President Donald Trump has convened at least three sets of meetings between Silicon Valley’s elite and his administration in Trump Tower and official Washington.
First, there was a parley in Trump Tower on Dec. 14 with about a dozen of the world’s most powerful technology executives. “There’s nobody like you in the world,” Trump declared at the two-hour gather, a power-play with executives whose employees had generally opposed his election, before entering the White House. “I’m here to help you folks do well.”
In June, the Office of American Innovation led by the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner convened “Tech Week” with Tim Cook of Apple, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Satya Nadella of Microsoft, Eric Schmidt of Alphabet and a dozen or so other tech executives and investors to discuss “defending America’s leadership in the technology economy” and modernizing government.
On Aug 2, the White House asked representatives from Apple, Amazon, Oracle, Qualcomm Google, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Oracle and others to help rethink how federal agencies use technology, reports Recode. During the private call, Kushner said that the White House was forming “centers of excellence” and considering “tours of duty” for tech engineers while asking for tech industry backing.
Yet CEOs seem to be tiring of all this asking for little to show for it. “It wouldn’t surprise me if more find excuses not to attend,” said Nick Sinai, a deputy chief technology officer under Obama, now at Insight Venture Partners, who regularly speaks with colleagues in Silicon Valley and Washington. That sentiment was echoed by others who had relocated from the White House to tech industry in the last year.
For now, executives are still playing the long game, said Sinai by phone. Historically, the gatherings between CEOs and the White House were rarely quid pro quo. It’s a chance for company executives to deepen relationships with administration officials, and argue their views before the White House. Follow-up meetings, informal consultations and private chats may lead to pay-offs down the line in terms of bills or executive actions. Yet with CEOs returning home facing criticism from employees and the public, SV executives may decide the trip is no longer worth it. “Even though there are still benefits of engaging, the costs are rising,” said Sinai.
In spite of united control of the government under the GOP, Trump’s legislative priorities are still moribund. The White House has virtually ignored its much-touted infrastructure promise, a potential multi-billion windfall for tech companies. Healthcare reform proved dead on arrival. The Trump administration is actively hostile toward tech companies’ stances on immigration and net neutrality. Only tax reform and government IT modernization remain issues with strong political backing from the White House, and the potential to deliver for Silicon Valley.
The political costs of engaging are mounting. Trump’s attacks on immigrants, minorities, free trade, a free press, clean energy, Amazon, climate, transgender soldiers and other bete noires has earned him the private disparagement and public rebukes from the CEOs of Microsoft, Apple and others who want to avoid sullying their brand with the President and alienating employees. Silicon Valley groups such as Tech Solidarity have actively begun organizing employees to oppose executives’ cooperation with the Trump administration. Tesla CEO Elon Musk and former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick both left Trump’s advisory councils after public outcry over their association with Trump.
Yet there’s still plenty of money on the table. Apple and other firms stand to repatriate billions of dollars stashed overseas under a favorable tax reform deal. Major federal government contracts are in the offing. Tech companies have already stocked up on Trump-friendly lobbyists to plead their case.
“This is an especially critical time for CEOs to engage with the President of the United States! He wants to hear from them and truly listens,” Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor and associate dean at the Yale School of Management, wrote by email, citing Trump’s reversal on scrapping NAFTA as proof that Trump could respond to pressure from business figures. “But these CEOs must be careful to avoid blind endorsements of political agendas and smiling sycophantic photo-ops.”
So far, people like Apple’s CEO Cook have argued that engagement with Trump, despite their well-known disagreements, was still the best way to press the company’s arguments. “At the end of the day, I’m not a person who’s going to walk away and say, ‘If you don’t do what I want, I leave,'” Cook said in an interview with Bloomberg. “I care deeply about America. I want America to do well. America’s more important than bloody politics from my point of view.”
As Trump’s troubles build—the investigation into Russian meddling into the election is accelerating and his approval ratings are have sunk as low as 36%—Silicon Valley could end up publicly disengaging with the administration, or exert more leverage over the administration than once predicted. The president may need tech CEOs more than they need him.