White House meetings add to tech awkward dance with Trump
The fraught relationship between the country’s leading tech executives and President Donald Trump is about to get even more tense.
The latest uncomfortable moment arrives Monday, when top tech CEOs are expected to sit down with Trump at the White House to talk about modernizing government technology. Many of the companies have refused to confirm their attendance publicly, in a sign of how sensitive their dealings with the Trump administration have become in a liberal Silicon Valley that loathes his policies on issues like immigration and climate change.
It’s just the newest example of a dynamic that has ensnared some of the industry’s leading figures. In February, embattled Uber CEO Travis Kalanick backed away from a Trump economic council after critics of the president’s travel ban announced a boycott of the company. More recently, Tesla CEO Elon Musk quit his role as a White House business adviser after Trump abandoned the Paris climate accord.
Liberal activists are serving notice that other tech companies need to beware — and calling on Silicon Valley workers to pressure their employers to disengage from Trump.
“Trump has been in office for almost 150 days. There is no mistaking what this administration is,” said Nicole Carty, campaign manager for SumOfUs, an advocacy group pressuring executives to leave Trump’s advisory councils. “They are condoning an administration in a moment when the truth and intent of its agenda has been revealed.”
“This meeting doesn’t have to happen,” another group, Tech Solidarity, wrote in a blog post about Monday’s White House session. “Tech employees have the power to stop it.”
Even so, executives from Google’s parent Alphabet, IBM, Cisco and Oracle will be among those in attendance, as will billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel. Other corporate participants named in media reports include Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and possibly Facebook. Those four companies have all declined to comment on their plans despite repeated requests, and sources close to Alphabet and IBM only confirmed their participation Thursday.
Many in the tech sector enthusiastically backed Hillary Clinton during the campaign, criticized Trump’s rhetoric toward women and immigrants, and warned he posed a threat to the industry’s ethos of entrepreneurship. The feeling appeared to be mutual, with Trump regularly blasting Apple for manufacturing products in China and suggesting Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was using his ownership of The Washington Post to gain a tax advantage.
After the election, though, tech executives made a December pilgrimage to Trump Tower and continued their standard practice of lobbying the federal government to advance their interests, regardless of who occupies the White House. Amazon, Google, Facebook and Lyft have all hired lobbyists with connections to Trump or his Cabinet members, as they seek to influence the administration on everything from taxes to immigration.
“No matter what industry you’re a part of, it’s critical to engage with the current administration,” said Gina Woodworth, senior vice president of public policy and government affairs at the Internet Association, which represents many of Silicon Valley’s biggest brands. “While there may be differing opinions on some policy issues, there’s also productive discussions to be had and room for positive collaboration.”
Indeed, as the leaders of multinational corporations, tech executives have a financial obligation to shareholders to engage the federal government, which sets key industry regulations and, in many cases, buys their products. Some, including Apple CEO Tim Cook, have expressed a moral and patriotic responsibility to weigh in on public policy matters where executives have expertise.
But now companies face growing pressure from their liberal employees and chunks of their customer base to resist the White House over its actions on immigration, climate change and transgender rights. And even though the CEOs have become more vocal in their criticism of Trump — over the Paris pullout, for example — their argument for continued engagement is becoming riskier as Trump’s political agenda skews further and further away from the progressive worldview.
And that could have workforce implications. Technology workers, particularly engineers, hold special sway over their bosses compared to employees in other industries. They have in-demand technical skills that companies often struggle to find, and often have more leeway to speak their mind with less fear of reprisal.
Behind the scenes, tech companies have been snapping up lobbyists and policy staff with deep connections to Trumpworld.
Amazon was among the first clients for the Washington office of Ballard Partners, a firm run by Trump’s longtime Florida lobbyist Brian Ballard. Facebook tapped Sandy Luff — a Trump transition staffer and former top aide to then-Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, now Trump’s attorney general — as public policy director for the executive branch.
Google brought on Akin Gump’s Geoff Verhoff, a Trump donor and member of the RNC’s financial leadership team, to lobby on immigration issues and Trump’s travel ban. And Lyft has retained Eris Group’s Travis Johnson — a onetime senior aide to then-Georgia Rep. Tom Price, now Trump’s head of Health and Human Services — to lobby on tax regulation.
In making such personnel moves, the tech sector is acting no differently than the cable and telecom industries, its frequent adversaries in Washington.
Just this week, T-Mobile added David Urban, a Trump campaign senior adviser, to its roster of lobbyists on telecom issues. Comcast signed former Rep. John Sweeney, who ran the New York arm of Trump’s presidential campaign. Verizon tapped McGuireWoods’ Robert Wasinger, who served as the Trump campaign’s director of outreach to senators and governors and later did a brief stint as White House liaison to the State Department. And AT&T called upon Sextons Creek President Bill Smith, an ex-aide to Vice President Mike Pence, to lobby on behalf of its $85 billion merger with Time Warner.
But telecom and cable don’t have the same sensitivities when it comes to cultivating Trump ties. They’re mostly headquartered outside the liberal tech centers, and their businesses are more heavily regulated than the dot-coms, which makes backing away from Washington a nonstarter. They tend to keep a low profile on the most divisive political issues.
For the internet industry, the Washington relationship wasn’t always so complicated. During President Barack Obama’s two terms in office, a virtual revolving door formed between the White House and Silicon Valley, with company executives accepting high-profile government jobs and ex-politicos making a soft landing at tech firms — like Obama press secretary Jay Carney at Amazon and Obama senior adviser David Plouffe, who jumped first to Uber and then to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropic initiative.
But those Democratic transitions were more palatable in an industry which, despite occasional run-ins with the Obama administration over national security, generally agreed with its stances on social and environmental issues.
Those simple days are gone in the age of Trump.
“At this point, there is a line in the sand and the CEOs that continue to cross it are doing it to the detriment of communities and of their employees,” said Brandi Collins, a senior campaign director at Color of Change, which advocates for racial and economic justice and pressured tech companies to withdraw support for the Republican National Convention last summer.