An effort by President Donald Trump to harness the likes of Apple, Amazon and Google toward modernizing the U.S. government will continue its work, even as top business leaders — including some prominent tech executives — have resigned from posts advising the White House on a wide range of economic issues.
The war between the Trump administration and corporate America reached new intensity on Wednesday, after the leaders from Merck, Intel, Pepsi, IBM, JPMorgan Chase and other major companies opted to stop participating on two key councils assisting the president. The catalyst: Trump’s widely denounced comments about the neo-Nazi demonstrations that turned deadly in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend.
But the White House isn’t ready to give up on another group, the American Technology Council, one of many initiatives under the watch of his son-in-law and top adviser, Jared Kushner.
Technically, the so-called ATC never had corporate members in the first place. Even though the group has held meetings that included Apple CEO Tim Cook, Amazon leader Jeff Bezos and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella — which happened at a so-called “tech week” blitz at the White House in June — the executive order commissioning the project only tapped government employees, not private-sector bigwigs, as formal participants.
“The council is full steam ahead on its work assisting the modernizing of government IT, which is primarily being done through internal government resources,” a White House official told Recode. “The council will continue to occasionally consult with the private sector on specific issue areas like improving cloud rollout, cybersecurity and digital services for [veterans].”
So far, not one of those tech participants has sworn off further efforts aiding the council. But Silicon Valley’s leading executives are growing “less comfortable standing next to the president as if to support all of his thinking,” said Dean Garfield, the president of the Information Technology Industry Council, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group that represents Apple, Google, Microsoft and others.
“I think the events of the last few days have shaken people’s confidence that President Trump has the experience and temperament to accomplish the things that are necessary for the country to move forward,” he added in an interview.
For the whole of the business community, it has been political whiplash since Trump over the weekend attributed the violence in Charlottesville to “many sides.” Following a deluge of criticism, he then denounced white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis in a statement. A day later, though, Trump returned to his original take, attacking the “alt-left” during what many characterized as a surreal press conference.
As a result, chief executives from General Electric, General Motors, Intel, Under Armour, Merck and others dumped Trump’s two councils, one on the U.S. economy and another on manufacturing. Together, it amounted to a major political rebuke as the White House proceeds with its plans to overhaul the tax code, revise foreign trade deals, reinvest in U.S. infrastructure and address health care reform.
With the American Technology Council, though, the tech industry faces its own tough choice. If top companies cease advising the White House in such a public setting, they might assuage their critics, including their own employees. Many in the liberal-leaning Bay Area had called on their bosses to stop helping Trump long before he failed to attribute the violence in Charlottesville to white supremacist groups.
But in swearing off future collaboration with the White House on tech issues, these Silicon Valley heavyweights would also lose a seat at the table as the administration develops major policy initiatives.
Some of those efforts include reforms to how government buys technology, major priorities for tech companies’ bottom lines. Amazon’s Bezos specifically brought up that topic during his industry’s public meeting with the president earlier this summer. (Trump has slammed his company repeatedly since then.) For others, like Apple’s Cook, an audience with the president has proven essential to pushing issues like immigration and health care reforms.
“The president and this administration is essential to the top five priorities to the tech sector, so it would be doing ourselves and our country a disservice to not work with this admin” Garfield said. “The parallel reality is that the president is making it hard for people to stand next to him, when he makes comments that are inconsistent [with] what [executives] believe to be true.”
At the moment, spokespeople for its biggest participants — like Apple, Google, Microsoft and SAP — did not respond to emails asking if their chief executives or other employees would continue assisting Kushner and his team on their quest for government modernization.
Cook, however, did condemn the president’s comments in a message to employees last night. “We must not witness or permit such hate and bigotry in our country, and we must be unequivocal about it,” the Apple executive said. “This is not about the left or the right, conservative or liberal. It is about human decency and morality.” Privately, Cook has spoken repeatedly with Trump and his top aides, including Kushner, on everything from health care to immigration to tax reform.
A spokeswoman for Intel, meanwhile, said the chipmaker isn’t sure about “future participation,” seeing as the company did not know “what the administration has planned for future industry involvement.” Intel CEO Brian Krzanich was one of the first to leave Trump’s manufacturing council, saying earlier this week that the politics had become too toxic to tackle policy issues.
IBM did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Its chief executive, Ginni Rometty, participated on Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum, which decided as a group to disband in response to the president’s remarks.
But one of Trump’s biggest backers — Oracle CEO Safra Catz — definitely isn’t going anywhere. “Yes, we will continue to support the work of the ATC,” a spokesman told Recode.
Before the Wednesday exodus, the Trump administration actually completed much of its work on technology behind the scenes. Last month, for example, the White House gathered representatives from Apple, Amazon, Google and others to discuss ways to set up “centers of excellence” in government, focused on federal agencies in need of better technology, Recode first reported.
Those calls with corporate lobbyists and other government-focused types are bound to continue — tech companies collectively spend tens of millions of dollars every year to sway regulators in Washington, D.C., on policy issues anyway.
But it’s not clear if Trump’s recent comments on Charlottesville — on top of his previous efforts around immigration and climate change — might impair his administration’s ability to tap Silicon Valley talent to accomplish its goals. At the moment, the White House’s top jobs overseeing science and technology, including the position of chief technology officer, remain unfilled, roughly seven months after Trump entered office.
Asked about its next meeting with the tech industry, a White House spokesman signaled Trump’s team and Silicon Valley are on the same page in one respect: They’re not yet willing to say much more.