Tech executives summoned to meet with Donald Trump in New York Wednesday had reason to suspect they were being lured into a trap.
In the run-up to the election, the President-elect clashed with industry bellwethers over such issues as immigration, manufacturing and smartphone security.
Many in Silicon Valley’s upper ranks made no secret of their support for Hillary Clinton, some expressing disdain for her opponent.
And Trump himself excoriated media executives in a similar summit three weeks ago and has used the bully-Twitter-pulpit in recent weeks to criticise other industries, using 140 characters or less to drag down companies’ stocks.
But concerns that the new administration would similarly use the Trump summit to browbeat Big Tech evaporated not long after the industry elite made their way through Trump Tower lobby, surrounded by reporters, security and enormous shining Christmas wreaths.
Seated at a long conference table, near Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, Apple’s Tim Cook and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Trump laid the compliments on thick.
“This is a truly amazing group of people,” Trump told a group that included Tesla founder Elon Musk, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Alphabet CEO Larry Page and IBM’s Ginni Rometty. “We want you to keep going with the incredible innovation. There’s nobody like you in the world. There’s nobody like the people in this room.”
Inside the 25th-floor conference room, once cameras were ushered out, the tone of the conversation was amiable and conciliatory, according to people who attended or were briefed on the meeting.
Trump was engaged, and he listened more than he spoke, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing a private meeting.
The executives spoke freely, introducing themselves to a group that included vice President-elect Mike Pence; Trump’s three eldest children; Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs president and Trump’s top chief economic policy adviser; and Peter Thiel, a PayPal co-founder and Trump transition team member, who helped orchestrate the summit.
“Very good to be here,” Cook said, according to a transcript. “And I look very forward to talking to the president-elect about the things that we can do to help you achieve some things you want.”
Oracle CEO Safra Catz said: “We are looking forward to helping you.”
Happiness abounded for Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins, who exclaimed: “We’re happy to be here and happy to help and happy to work with you.”
Topics of discussion included jobs, immigration, trade and relations with China, the people said. After two hours in the room, the executives were nudged out to clear space for a Trump corporate holiday party.
Focus on innovation
Afterward, Amazon’s Bezos said the meeting was “very productive”. He said he shares the view that “the administration should make innovation one of its key pillars, which would create a huge number of jobs across the whole country, in all sectors, not just tech — agriculture, infrastructure, manufacturing — everywhere”.
The praise from the Trump camp came quickly, too. Donald Trump was “honoured” to have been at the meeting with “the most impressive group of minds I’ve seen assembled”, he tweeted.
However upbeat the tenor of comments about the meeting, there remains a philosophical chasm between many in Silicon Valley and the incoming administration.
This summer, more than 140 tech industry executives published an open letter denouncing his candidacy and declaring that he “would be a disaster for innovation”. There’s no guarantee that Trump won’t take aim at individual companies, should they carry through with strategies at odds with the president’s agenda.
“What a humiliation for everyone at that table,” Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, wrote in a tweet referring to the meeting at Trump Tower. “Anyone who agrees to work with Trump or meets on the premise of an open dialogue is choosing to humiliate themselves.”
For now, though, Trump positioned the meeting as a foundation for an ongoing dialogue. “We’re going to be there for you, and you’ll call my people, you’ll call me, it doesn’t make any difference, we have no formal chain of command around here,” he said.
There are areas of common ground. The largest US technology companies hold hundreds of billions of dollars overseas and would like to bring that money back at a favorable tax rate. Trump has called for tax reform to allow such repatriation and has said revenue from the move could fund improvements to US infrastructure.
Cook and Musk were meant to stick around after the meeting for further “tech industry discussions” with Trump, according to Trump spokesman Jason Miller.
Musk, Rometty and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick are on Trump’s advisory panel, the president’s Strategic and Policy Forum.
Trump suggested the group reconvene for future summits like the one held Wednesday, possibly once a quarter, according to a transition team statement following the meeting.
Trump noted that the US stock market has enjoyed a “bounce” since his election — the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index was up about 5,7% since 8 November. “They’re all talking about the bounce, so right now everybody in this room has to like me at least a little bit,” he said. — (c) 2016 Bloomberg LP