NEW YORK — The leaders of Apple, Facebook and other tech giants that Donald Trump disparaged on the campaign trail will descend Wednesday on Trump Tower for a meeting that could reset their fractious relationship — or set the stage for four acrimonious years.
On the surface, Trump’s first major outreach to Silicon Valley is all about the economy: He plans to convene the chief executives of major tech players like Google’s parent company Alphabet, IBM and Microsoft to discuss ways the industry can help his nascent administration create jobs, according to a source familiar with the meeting. Already, IBM has tried to sweeten the conversation by announcing plans Tuesday to hire 25,000 new U.S. workers.
But the Trump Tower gathering also doubles as a peace summit of sorts, after a campaign season in which Trump called for a boycott of Apple because of its stance on privacy, pitted his aides against Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a spat over immigration reform and accused Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos of using his ownership of The Washington Post as a tax-dodging “scam.” The e-commerce giant, Trump said at one point, would have “such problems” if he were elected.
Many of those executives — who lambasted Trump in kind, while showering Hillary Clinton with campaign cash — will be in the room with him Wednesday, while the rest of Silicon Valley is watching for fresh reassurances that Trump won’t continue targeting their industry.
“The rhetoric of the campaign was extremely divisive,” said Aaron Levie, the CEO of the cloud-storage company Box, who isn’t attending the meeting. Like many in his industry, Levie backed Clinton. Now, though, Trump “is the president, so we have to find a way to work constructively,” he said.
In some ways, Levie said the onus rests on Trump himself. “Any industry needs to feel safe to voice their opinions and their issues without fear of retaliation,” he said. “That’s going to be the biggest question that Trump will have to face.”
To that end, some in the tech industry have tried to offer an olive branch: IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, for one, announced a day before her arrival at Trump Tower that she would hire 25,000 new workers over the next four years, part of a package of initiatives that a company spokesman described to POLITICO as a “basis for engaging the incoming administration.” For the past year, however, IBM has been cutting positions worldwide.
All the other companies whose executives are attending the Wednesday meeting — Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Cisco, Facebook, Intel, Microsoft, Oracle and SpaceX — declined to comment.
To many tech executives and lobbyists, at least initially, Trump’s election sealed Silicon Valley’s fate in Washington, where many industry leaders regularly had a receptive ear under President Barack Obama — and hoped to reprise that role with Clinton.
For the past eight years, Google has maintained close ties — and plenty of revolving-door employees — with the White House. Others, like Apple CEO Tim Cook and Facebook’s Zuckerberg, frequently and directly challenged Obama on issues like surveillance and encryption. And Obama regularly tapped companies like IBM and Xerox for advice on how to improve trade, exports and other areas of the U.S. economy.
Unlike Obama, Trump doesn’t have those ties with Silicon Valley. He never articulated a policy platform for digital issues, as Clinton did during the 2016 campaign. On the issues he did discuss, like encryption, Trump often stood opposite companies like Apple, whose CEO Trump criticized for fighting the FBI in a key digital privacy case — and later threatened a boycott.
With Amazon, Trump’s target was Bezos himself because of his ownership of The Washington Post, which covered the president-elect critically. And his aides skewered Zuckerberg after the Facebook chief indirectly swiped at Trump’s comments about immigrants and support for building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.
Trump’s rhetoric later led Apple, for example, to withdraw from supporting the Republican convention that nominated Trump. Many tech leaders, like LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, later criticized Trump as a “disaster” for innovation. Bezos questioned Trump’s fitness for office in multiple public settings, while Elon Musk, the leader of Tesla and SpaceX, said before Election Day that Trump “is probably not the right guy” for the White House.
Months later, as president-elect, Trump and the tech industry have no choice but to reset that relationship. Trump, who has promised to create jobs, may need to depend on one of the largest sectors of the U.S. economy, while Silicon Valley relies on Washington’s blessings to turn their most audacious ideas — from self-driving cars to delivery drones — into reality. Trump’s early pledges on tax and infrastructure reform, meanwhile, long have been top-of-mind for tech companies like Apple, Alphabet and IBM.
Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association, which represents some of the companies attending the meeting, said he thought the conversation at Trump Tower would prove a “forward-looking” session and not a tense rehash of the barbs traded throughout 2016.
“The election is the election; the campaign is the campaign,” Beckerman said. “Now we’re talking about governing the country, and it’s a different conversation and the tone is very different.”
With so much on the line, Silicon Valley might also be inclined to bury the hatchet — at least for now.
“It’s a meeting, it’s not a pledge initiation,” said Mark Cuban, a venture capitalist, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and longtime Clinton supporter. Asked whether tech should challenge Trump at the meeting, Cuban told POLITICO via email: “You don’t do that in a group meeting.”