NEW YORK, Dec 15 – Donald Trump held talks Wednesday with some of America’s most powerful tech executives in a bid to mend fences with a largely pro-Hillary Clinton Silicon Valley, promote job creation and facilitate trade. The afternoon summit at Trump Tower in New York gathered some of the wealthiest and brightest brains in the tech industry around the same table as the incoming 70-year-old billionaire Republican president after a bruising election campaign that bitterly divided the country.
Less than six weeks before the real estate tycoon is scheduled to take office as head of the world’s most powerful democracy, the tech meeting was a break from Trump otherwise cabinet-building talks. Leading senators are concerned over Trump’s nomination of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and the oilman’s ties to Moscow, on top of a CIA assessment that Russian hackers interfered to help sway the November 8 election for the Republican.
Against that background, Trump headed into hostile territory by sitting down with Silicon Valley titans who threw their weight behind his Democratic rival Clinton during the campaign. The exception was PayPal co-founder and Trump supporter Peter Thiel, whom the president-elect praised for helping convene the meeting.
“I’m here to help you folks do well,” Trump told the industry leaders in opening remarks that reporters were briefly allowed to observe after the tech titans went around the table introducing themselves. We want you to keep going with the incredible innovation. There’s nobody like you in the world,” he said. Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence sat in the middle of the table with CEOs that included Tim Cook of Apple, Satya Nadella of Microsoft and Larry Page of Alphabet (Google).
Also in the room were Amazon founder and chief Jeff Bezos, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Oracle chief executive Safra Catz. Trump’s three eldest children Don Jr, Ivanka and Eric also attended as did son-in-law Jared Kushner, and other key Trump staffers.
The most notable absence was Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey – even more glaring given the president-elect’s prolific use of the social network and ever expanding list of 17.3 million followers. Politico reported that Twitter was “bounced” from the meeting in retribution for refusing during the campaign to allow an emoji version of the hashtag #CrookedHillary.
But others have also been targets of the former reality TV star’s ire, including Bezos for allegedly using The Washington Post to secure tax benefits for Amazon – and to attack the Republican. Bezos responded by cheekily offering Trump a trip into space – on a rocket operated by his Blue Origin space flight company.
Late last month, a group of 17 tech associations offered to work with Trump while calling for policies to “foster growth and innovation.” The effects of a Trump presidency on the sector are hard to foresee. Signalling the path forward, Trump said they could call him or his team. “It doesn’t make any difference. We have no formal chain of command around here,” he said.
Taxes and encryption
While the tech industry is likely to oppose any trade barriers or efforts to limit immigration, many companies are expected to welcome a lowering of corporate tax rates promised by Trump, especially on profits repatriated from overseas. “We’re going to make fair trade deals. We’re going to make it a lot easier for you to trade across borders. There’s a lot of restrictions, a lot of problems that I think you see. And if you have any ideas on that, that would be great,” Trump said.
Tech firms led by Apple are responsible for the lion’s share of an estimated US$2.5 trillion being held overseas by US companies, and are reluctant to bring those funds back and face a hefty tax bill. A potential clash between Trump and the sector is possible over encryption, and the ability of law enforcement and intelligence services to decrypt devices for national security investigations.
None of the industry leaders stopped to talk to reporters on their way out of the building at the end, except Catz who gave a little wave. Trump said he would add Musk and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to his advisory council of business leaders tasked with helping to create new jobs “across the United States from Silicon Valley to the heartland.”
Trump is putting the finishing touches to his cabinet, nominating former Texas governor Rick Perry as energy secretary and reportedly choosing Montana Representative Ryan Zinke as interior secretary. Perry, who participated in the Republican primary but was crushed by Trump early on, once assailed him as a “cancer on conservatism.” On Wednesday, Forbes magazine ranked Trump as the second most powerful person of the year – right behind Russian President Vladimir Putin. — AFP