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Why Are Tech CEOs Still Meeting With Trump?

What’s in it for them?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Silicon Valley has yet another date with the Trump administration. On Thursday, Bloomberg reported that major tech company leaders — including Apple’s Tim Cook, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos — will participate in a June 19 meeting led by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner.

What’s on the agenda? Innovation and technology, obviously. And Google’s head of cloud computing will be there, too. Maybe something about the cloud? That the meeting’s agenda is vague speaks to the nature of these events. To those of us who have watched the Trump administration scorn the tech industry on policy decision after policy decision, a question lingers: What’s the point of meetings like this, anyway?

Some context: In its short existence, the Trump administration has a track record of lassoing famous tech talent into a room, posing next to the herd for trophy-esque photo opps, and then apparently disregarding their advice and requests. You might recall the December 2016 summit in which major representatives of every major tech company (sans Twitter) scurried through the gold-plated Trump Hotel lobby and held back grimaces as Trump bragged that he’d boosted their stock sales. The event, followed by the news that Tesla’s Elon Musk and Uber’s Travis Kalanick would join the president’s newly minted business council, was a symbolic blow to the progressive idealism that Silicon Valley strove to embody. “I’m here to help you folks do well,” Trump told the roomful of executives.

Unsurprisingly, Trump did not keep that promise. The first major blow to the tech cohort arrived in the form of Trump’s travel ban, which blocked people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. More than 130 tech companies decried the executive order, including Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Twitter. Their messaging spoke to not only the questionable legality of the ban, but the fact that these corporations depended heavily on immigrants to fill important staff positions. In his first attempt to dis his future opponent, president-in-waiting Mark Zuckerberg said he was “concerned” about the order, that the matter was a “personal” one. A #deleteuber hashtag campaign spurred by the ban forced Kalanick to distance himself from the president and drop out of his business council.

Then there was the Paris accord. As Trump wrestled over whether he would honor the worldwide agreement to slow the effects of climate change, tech executives like Cook and Musk tried to persuade him to remain committed. And when Trump made the decision to pull out of the agreement, the two publicly criticized the president. The withdrawal led a frustrated Musk to bow out of Trump’s advisory councils. And Cook publicly criticized the president again, standing by Apple’s commitment to using renewable energy.

Now that both immigration and climate change appear to be off the table as negotiable topics, what’s left for the slowly dwindling coalition of CEOs to lobby for? For one, there’s the possibility of scoring contracts with the government, in the case that it’d want to utilize their products. And on the policy front, there remains a handful of boring but important laws that Silicon Valley relies upon to keep moving.

When Donald Trump won the election, a trade group called the Internet Association sent him a 10-page wish list describing the various policies that major tech companies saw as indispensable to the industry. Those requests included strengthening intellectual property laws to prevent patent trolling, limiting rules that would block company access to user data, and promoting digital trade among foreign governments. Some companies may still be holding out hope that the Trump administration will reform visa programs like the H-1B, which allow them to hire experienced foreign employees. And if the tech industry’s battles with the Obama administration are any indication of what’s on the line in the next four years, efforts to preserve net neutrality and protect encryption are almost surely at the top of Silicon Valley’s agenda.

The most important issue to Trump, however, is likely that of foreign manufacturing. Companies like Apple have been able to remain wildly profitable by making all of their flagship products in low-wage Chinese factories — something that Trump was fond of lambasting on the campaign trail. Shaken by the prospect that Trump might try to force his company to modify those foreign operations, Cook preemptively invested $1 billion in U.S. manufacturing last month. The Trump administration immediately claimed the move as a victory, and press secretary Sean Spicer called it a sign of “optimism” toward the president’s economic agenda.

Cook’s move is probably the savviest we’ve seen when it comes to dealing with Trump. While keeping a healthy distance from the president, he managed to offer him a measly peace offering that was good for Apple’s business. In a similar way, these tech summits appear to be much more about symbolic flattery than policy-making. It may well be that voluntary favors in the form of $1 billion manufacturing investments and a little face time with Trump’s son-in-law will be enough to keep the president at bay for the next four years. Whether there’s a possibility we get actual progress from all of this is another question.