On Thursday, President Trump announced that the United States would be pulling out of the Paris climate accord. It was a blow to the scientists, politicians, and citizens around the world who realize global warming is an existential threat. But the news was particularly hard to stomach for one well-loved tech executive who agreed no less than six months ago to join Trump’s business-centric Strategic and Policy Forum as an adviser. “Am departing presidential councils,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted shortly after Trump’s speech. “Climate change is real. Leaving Paris is not good for America or the world.”
Musk was right to distance himself from an administration that would rather suffocate the earth with greenhouse gases than cut coal jobs. After all, no amount of corporate tax breaks is worth being implicated in the slow, cruel death of polar bears. In the emotional aftermath of Trump’s announcement, some have praised Musk for his decision, commending him for staying true to his beliefs and refusing to work with the president. But anyone who thinks Musk did a noble thing Thursday afternoon is confusing his business acumen for bravery.
To understand why Musk’s decision is anything but gallant, it’s helpful to rewind to December. It was then that Trump, ever the media manipulator, was on a mission to hype his valuable business pedigree by jamming as many recognizable Silicon Valley executives as possible into a Trump Tower conference room. “My only hope is that often-erupting Tesla and SpaceX’s Elon Musk . . . will also erupt when he realizes the farce he has agreed to be part of,” Recode’s Kara Swisher wrote ahead of the summit. But Musk did nothing of the sort. He joined the leaders of Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook — the very companies who had positioned themselves as a catalyst for a more democratic, inclusive, progressive society — for the sake of his businesses’ interests.
Around the same time, it was announced that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and Musk would join the Strategic and Policy Forum, a group of business leaders who planned to “meet with the president frequently,” offering a Silicon Valley seal of approval to his budding administration. “America has the most innovative and vibrant companies in the world, and the pioneering CEOs joining this Forum today are at the top of their fields,” Trump said in a statement. A little over a month later, Trump issued an executive order that banned more than 218 million people from entering the United States, the majority of whom resided in Muslim-majority countries. Amid an online #DeleteUber campaign and protests from his own staff, Kalanick quickly withdrew from the president’s council.
But in the face of similar customer threats to boycott Tesla, Musk remained. “Advisory councils simply provide advice and attending does not mean that I agree with actions by the Administration,” he said in a statement the day before a February meeting. “My goals are to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy and to help make humanity a multi-planet civilization, a consequence of which will be the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs and a more inspiring future for all. I understand the perspective of those who object to my attending this meeting, but I believe at this time that engaging on critical issues will on balance serve the greater good.” The day of the meeting, Gizmodo ran a collection of photos of Musk being ignored by Trump and his administration members at the gathering under the headline, “Here’s Elon Musk Giving Donald Trump a Stern Talking to About the Muslim Ban.” The day after the meeting, Musk tweeted through the criticism by pointing out that he alone had managed to add the discussion of the travel ban and climate change to the White House meeting’s agenda. Despite his efforts, nothing happened, but still Musk remained.
Musk remained when Trump baselessly accused President Obama of wiretapping him during the 2016 election. Musk remained when Trump released an incoherent tax plan. Musk remained when Trump and Republican lawmakers celebrated the House’s passage of a health care bill that, if enacted, would leave 23 million more Americans uninsured by 2026. Musk remained when Trump — angered and confused about the legal purgatory of his travel ban — said he was considering “[breaking] up” the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Musk remained when Trump called North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un “a smart cookie.” Musk remained when Trump unceremoniously fired FBI Director James Comey due to the FBI’s investigation of allegations of his presidential campaign’s collusion with Russia. Musk remained when Trump praised President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines for fighting his country’s drug war (an effort that he’s been accused of carrying out via extrajudicial killings) and invited him to the White House. Musk remained when the president tweeted the nonexistent word “covfefe.”
Elon Musk’s limit with Trump ended up being an issue related to his own business interests. There’s no doubt that shifting the American economy toward more energy-efficient homes and cars will help the planet in the long run. But many of the promises set forth by the Paris accord would also benefit Musk’s companies, which include Tesla and SolarCity. Amid the president’s disregard of everything from the U.S. legal system to the English language, Musk lent his name and title to Trump. But the second it was clear he wasn’t going to get what his businesses needed most, he withdrew. It may have been a strategic move on his part, but it seems to be devoid of basic empathy.
It’s a bad look for Musk, one that could’ve been easily dodged if he had gone the way of Mark Zuckerberg. The Facebook CEO and perpetual prospective presidential candidate has all but avoided falling into Trump’s treacherous PR spiderweb by sending his company’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, to meet with him in his place, reportedly limiting all other communication to covert phone calls, and publicly criticizing the president’s major policy decisions via his gigantic platform. The few tech titans who appear to be somewhat willing to collaborate with Trump should take note of Zuckerberg’s and Musk’s different paths: When dealing with a figure so steeped in controversy, a little bit of distance can preserve a lot of dignity.