NEW YORK— President-elect Donald Trump, who faced fierce opposition from some Silicon Valley leaders during the election campaign, strove to assure the titans of tech on Wednesday that his administration is “here to help you folks do well.”
Trump, still savoring his election victory, convened a summit at Trump Tower for nearly a dozen tech leaders, whose industry largely supported Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Many in the industry are worried that Trump will stifle innovation, curb the hiring of computer-savvy immigrants and infringe on consumers’ digital privacy.
He immediately tried to allay those fears.
“We want you to keep going with the incredible innovation. Anything we can do to help this go on, we will be there for you,” Trump said. “You’ll call my people, you’ll call me. We have no formal chain of command around here.”
The CEOs who filled the table in Trump’s 25th floor conference room included Apple’s Tim Cook, Alphabet’s Larry Page, Google’s Eric Schmidt, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Tesla’s Elon Musk, IBM’s Ginni Rometty, Oracle’s Safra Catz and Cisco Systems’ Chuck Robbins. Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, attended instead of its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, who is one of many tech executives who have expressed misgivings about Trump’s pledge to deport millions of immigrants who are in the country illegally.
Reporters were allowed to witness only the first moments of the meeting. Bezos, who is also owner of The Washington Post, which has been a frequent target of Trump complaints about campaign coverage, said he was “super excited about the possibility of innovation,” a comment echoed by several other attendees.
No industry was more open in its contempt for Trump during the campaign. In an open letter published in July, more than 140 technology executives, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists skewered him as a “disaster for innovation.”
And Trump’s denigration of Mexicans, his pledge to deport millions of immigrants now living in the U.S. illegally and his crude remarks about women were widely viewed as racist, authoritarian and sexist by an industry that prides itself on its tolerance.
Trump, in turn, sometimes lashed out at the industry and its leaders, and—despite his reassurances Wednesday—questions remain about how he’ll govern.
He has lambasted Bezos for the Post’s campaign coverage and has suggested that Amazon could face antitrust scrutiny after his election. Trump also rebuked Cook for fighting a government order requiring Apple to unlock an encrypted iPhone used by a shooter in last year’s terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California.
And Trump’s repeated negative comments about immigrants raised fears that he might dismantle programs that have enabled tech companies to hire tens of thousands of foreign workers with the skills to write computer programs, design web pages and build mobile apps.
The industry is also worried that Trump might try to undermine “net neutrality,” a regulation requiring internet service providers to offer equal access to all online services. Trump’s harsh characterization of the media as dishonest and unfair has raised other fears that he might try to restrict free speech online.
Some in Silicon Valley think the industry’s best move would be to keep its distance until Trump changes his tone. Former Google executive Chris Sacca, now a tech investor, argues that industry leaders should have steered clear of the meeting altogether.
Sitting down with the president-elect “would only make sense after Trump has given public assurances he won’t encourage censorship, will stop exploiting fake news, will promote net neutrality, denounce hate crimes and embrace science,” Sacca said. “If and until then, tech figures who visit are being used to whitewash an authoritarian bully who threatens not just our industry but our entire democracy.”
Separately on Wednesday, Trump officially announced his selection of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry as his secretary of energy, leading a department Perry once suggested scrapping.
Perry’s close relations with energy executives and his long-time dependence on them for political contributions likely signal an abrupt change of course at the Energy Department. He is expected to welcome the four-state Dakota Access Pipeline—which has become the center of fierce protests—and set an open-door policy for oil industry interests. During a debate in his ill-fated 2012 presidential campaign, Perry tried to recall three federal agencies he wanted to eliminate but couldn’t recall the Energy Department, instead just saying “oops.”
While Trump remained in his Manhattan skyscraper Wednesday, he was hitting the road Thursday for the latest stop in his “thank you” tour, this time in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The tour, which is designed to salute supporters in states that helped him win the White House, will continue Friday in Orlando, Florida, before wrapping Saturday at a Mobile, Alabama, football stadium which was the site of the biggest rally of his campaign.