The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The secretive brain trust of Silicon Valley insiders who are helping Trump

Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio earlier this year (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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Billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel is putting together a brain trust of Silicon Valley insiders to share ideas with the transition team for President-elect Donald Trump. But he’s having trouble finding takers.

In recent days, the Facebook board member and PayPal cofounder - who is also a member of the Trump transition - has been appealing to fellow entrepreneurs of all political stripes to share their best ideas and possibly join the incoming administration.

Thiel has been carrying around an iPad with an editable list of possible candidates, say people familiar with Thiel’s thinking who did not want to be named because the venture capitalist has not made his effort public. Those who have been approached by Thiel have been asked to add other names to the shortlist.

Thiel, a libertarian who was shunned by his tech industry peers for being a Trump supporter, is pitching his personal network of entrepreneurs on the opportunity to influence an incoming administration that is somewhat of a blank slate when it comes to technology policy. Because Trump had so few ties to the world of tech, Thiel will have an unusually powerful influence on the new administration, the people familiar with his thinking said.

But in the liberal bastion of Silicon Valley — where Trump is despised and even admitting you’re a Republican can hurt your candidacy for a job – that coveted opportunity has been fraught with challenges. And some people have turned him down altogether. Thiel declined to comment.

People who have joined Thiel form a tight-knit group of conservative and libertarian-leaning entrepreneurs who have long felt ostracized in Silicon Valley for their political views, a source said. Many are excited to finally have a voice in government.

Some entrepreneurs who had not been politically active said the opportunity was too good to pass up. “The chance to influence the government is a huge opportunity,” said Jack Abraham, a serial entrepreneur who is executive director of the Thiel Fellowship. “There are people who are repulsed by Trump, and it’s understandable - Silicon Valley is very liberal. But it’s unfortunate [that some people don’t want to contribute] because this is a unique opportunity for smart people to inject ideas.”

Others who spoke to the Washington Post said people Thiel approached were conflicted: Thiel is revered throughout Silicon Valley for his business acumen, even by those who disagree with his politics. In any other circumstance, being tapped by someone of his stature to have a voice at the highest levels of power would be hugely appealing.

Entrepreneurs working in emerging areas that the government has yet to fully regulate, such as the virtual currency bitcoin and drones, see the value in having a line to an administration that so far has had few ties in the tech world.

But people who have turned Thiel down felt Trump’s campaign had been too divisive and that an association with Trump could have toxic repercussions in their social and business circles, several people said.

The reaction in Silicon Valley reflects a broader dilemma for the incoming administration: Many of the best and brightest are wary of contributing to the incoming government because they fear the ramifications of having ties to Trump. These concerns have played out in recent days among Republicans who are considering whether to serve.

People on Thiel’s shortlist include Blake Masters, who co-authored, with Thiel, the book Zero to One, which is read as a business bible in Silicon Valley. Masters is also president of the Thiel Foundation, an organization dedicated to funding young people who want to skip college to pursue an entrepreneurial idea.

Other Thiel mentees have been tapped, including Joe Lonsdale and Abraham. Like Masters, Lonsdale met Thiel while he was a libertarian-leaning Stanford student, and co-founded the data-mining startup Palantir Technologies with Thiel. Abraham is executive director of the Thiel Foundation, and Thiel's ties to Abraham include sitting on the board of his startup Zenreach.

Balaji Srinivasan, whose startup focusing on the virtual currency bitcoin received funding from Thiel, shares some of his anti-authoritarian ideals. Thiel has advocated for technologists to live in offshore ships that would function as mini-nations to escape regulation; Srinivasan once advocated for technologists to exit the United States and form a separate society that would govern itself.

Masters and Srinivasan did not respond to requests for comment. Lonsdale declined to comment.

Max Levchin, another PayPal cofounder who is an outspoken critic of Trump, has contributed ideas and suggested others for the shortlist, but does not want to join the administration, a source close to Levchin said. Levchin is on the advisory board at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the watchdog agency created by the Obama administration to police financial institutions. Levchin declined to comment.

In speeches leading up to the election, Thiel has pushed for a government agenda that includes greater investments in science and technology. He gave a $1.25 million donation to political groups supporting Trump.

Thiel is also a backer of many companies that have pending business with Washington. He’s funded the ride-sharing company Lyft and home-sharing company Airbnb, which have been in the crosshairs with regulators and unions. He also has backed a marijuana business and a drone maker, areas that federal regulators are scrutinizing.

The people close to Thiel said he had also told Trump’s team about the the challenges startups had in doing business with the federal government. The issue is close to Thiel: Palantir, which Thiel co-founded, recently won a legal case against the Department of Defense, in which the company claimed that it was sidelined from competing for government contracts.