Donald Trump may have just met with Kanye West, but the tech execs meeting with the president-elect today may outshine even Mr. Kim Kardashian in sheer collective star power. The awkwardness may also run just as thick.
The confirmed list of attendees include most of tech’s top leaders (which also reads like a who’s who of people who are almost certainly richer than Trump): Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Oracle co-chief executive Safra Catz, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, IBM CEO Ginni Rommety, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Alphabet (neé Google) CEO Larry Page and executive chairman Eric Schmidt, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins, and Palantir CEO Alex Karp. (Karp co-founded the big data firm with Trump’s top Silicon Valley backer, venture capitalist Peter Thiel.)
The meeting is the first Trump has taken with a group of executives from a single industry—an industry with which he was constantly at odds throughout his campaign. During a photo op at the meeting’s outset, Trump sounded a harmonious note.
“We want you to keep going with that incredible innovation,” Trump said. “There’s nobody like you in the world. There’s nobody like the people in this room.”
Trump spokesman Jason Miller said the meeting would focus on how the incoming president and the tech industry would “work together to bring tech jobs back to America.” This formulation sounds a bit odd, at least looking around Silicon Valley itself, where American tech jobs abound. But Trump didn’t win the presidency because he captured the support of San Francisco software engineers or product managers in Palo Alto. He’s talking about the kinds of jobs he has accused the tech industry of exporting overseas. Today’s meeting promises to be a test of whether Trump and tech can find any common ground when their aims and understanding of the way the world works seem so fundamentally divergent.
During his campaign, Trump seemed almost defiant in his unwillingness to acknowledge the tech industry as one of the US economy’s most important economic engines. Early in the GOP primary campaign, many of Trump’s rivals flocked to Silicon Valley to don hoodies for awkward photo-ops in the hope of telegraphing they were down with innovation. During his 75-minute acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Trump never uttered the words “innovation,” “technology,” “science,” or “internet.” The message was abundantly clear: here was a candidate pinning his electoral hopes and promises on a simplistic evocation of a past that never really existed and a willful refusal to grapple with the tech-driven economy as it exists today.
Not that Trump had a lot of reason to want to embrace tech. The industry as a whole overwhelmingly backed Hillary Clinton, as did most of its marquee leaders. And Trump knew he could score populist points going after the tycoons easy to portray as disconnected from the struggles of ordinary Americans.
Silicon Valley sees little upside in Trump’s promised trade war.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made the ripest target as the owner of the Washington Post, which Trump banned from campaign events due to what he saw as unfavorable coverage. He accused Amazon of being a monopoly and said he would sic antitrust forces on the company. Bezos responded with a hashtag: #sendDonaldtospace. Trump also went after Apple, claiming he could get the company to start building its gadgets in the US and calling for a boycott of the company if it refused to hack the San Bernardino shooter’s phone. (In an apparent lack of understanding of global supply chains in the first instance and of encryption in the in the second.) The president-elect is at odds with the industry, most notably Facebook, on immigration reform. And Silicon Valley sees little upside in Trump’s promised trade war.
Trump and the gathered tech execs might be able to smooth over all that contentiousness, however, if they focus on an issue where they seem to share a common interest: taxes. Trump has promised to slash the corporate tax rate in general and in particular on funds that companies have stashed in offshore cash hoards, a common practice among Silicon Valley’s giants. Companies will invest all that repatriated cash in new US jobs, Trump has promised. But may be just as likely to go into stock buybacks and dividends for shareholders.
Perhaps the most notable bit of news from the otherwise closed event is the Trump team’s announcement that Cook and Musk would be staying after the main meeting for additional time with the president-elect. Of all the attendees, the pair run businesses that make actual, physical things—things Trump wants to see made in the US. Musk is already doing that in a big way with the massive “gigafactory” Tesla is building in Nevada to make batteries. Convincing Apple to move some major portion of its manufacturing to the US would be an even bigger score, but it’s hard to see what Apple would stand to gain from such a move beyond a public relations win. The fine print on the back of every iPhone reads, “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.” In the reality show that Trump’s presidency promises to be, swapping out that last word for “America” looms as the grand prize.