When the tech industry’s top executives head to Trump Tower this week for an invite-only meeting, they will have many things to say to Donald Trump. But they all share a major agenda item: breaking the ice.
Unlike President Obama, who frequently visited Silicon Valley and hosted tech executives at the White House, the president-elect has had a bitter relationship with the industry. On the campaign trail, Trump chastised Apple for outsourcing the manufacturing of iPhone components to China and threatened to push federal intelligence agencies to weaken security software to fight terrorism. He vowed to curb immigration, a charged issue for an industry that recruits and sponsors thousands of immigrant engineers.
Tech leaders weren’t shy about their views either: Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google’s parent company, volunteered for Hillary Clinton's campaign. Tesla chief executive Elon Musk said Trump didn’t “seem to have the sort of character that reflects well on the United States.” Dozens of executives signed an open letter opposing his candidacy.
But Wednesday afternoon, at a meeting organized by Facebook board member and Trump transition team member Peter Thiel, along with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his chief of staff Reince Priebus, the leaders of Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and other technology giants will try to put the past behind them.
The one-hour meeting has no formal or written agenda, according to people familiar with the matter, and no one has seen a complete list of invitees. The attendee list includes Musk, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, Amazon CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos, Alphabet CEO Larry Page, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich and Oracle CEO Safra Catz.
Catz, a Republican who met with the transition team last month, is the only member of the group known to have had a previous relationship with Trump.
Technology executives see the meeting as something of an olive branch, according to people familiar with their thinking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely about a private event. While Trump has held numerous one-on-one meetings during his transition, this is the first roundtable with executives from a single industry, they pointed out.
It’s unclear how far the olive branch will extend. For Bezos and Trump in particular, the disputes have felt more personal at times. Trump has accused Bezos and Amazon of “getting away with murder, tax-wise.” Noting that Bezos owns The Washington Post, Trump has also accused him of directing The Post’s coverage of his campaign to help Amazon avoid taxes. A spokesman for Amazon declined to comment on Bezos’s presence at the meeting.
On a call with reporters Tuesday, a spokesman for the transition team said the tech summit fits with Trump's agenda about ensuring American innovation. He said the president-elect is prepared to discuss "access to capital" and a "tax structure that encourages and fosters such innovation." He declined to comment further.
Because the CEOs see Trump as a wild card, they’re turning to their staffs to prepare for a range of issues he could raise. Their staffs, in turn, are actively trading notes with one another.
Reforming the tax code is high on the agenda, and Cook and other executives are expected to push on this topic, according to the people familiar with the matter. Tech giants keep billions of dollars overseas through elaborate legal strategies that critics call tax avoidance. The companies have long argued that corporate taxes in the United States are too high and that they will repatriate the money when the rates are lowered.
Trump and Silicon Valley are largely aligned on this subject. Trump has consistently said he plans to lower the corporate tax rate from 35 to 15 percent. Indeed, many in Silicon Valley who personally detest Trump have acknowledged that his anti-regulatory policies will make it easier for start-ups to launch products in new areas.
Trade is the most heated topic the technology leaders plan to bring up. Many Silicon Valley companies are concerned about how imports of widgets and other hardware components from China and other countries will be taxed in the Trump administration. Trump’s populist vows to tear up trade deals, impose punitive tariffs on Chinese goods and end an era of free trade have rattled the industry, along with other manufacturers that are dependent on cheap imports to make their products. China is the United States’ largest trading partner in goods.
“I plan to tell the President-elect that we are with him and are here to help in any way we can,” Catz said in an emailed statement. “If he can reform the tax code, reduce regulation, and negotiate better trade deals, the U.S. technology community will be stronger and more competitive than ever.”
While free trade is by far the biggest fissure between the president-elect and the business community, many companies were relieved to see Trump appoint Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad as the next U.S. ambassador to China last week. Branstad is known as a long-standing friend of Beijing who is unlikely to be combative.
Ideologically, Trump's supporters have little in common with a gilded region where $100,000 Tesla sedans dot the freeways, and where the average software engineer earns six figures and aspires to teach computers to take over human labor. But the tech executives are expected to make the case that their industry improves American lives and contributes to the economy by boosting productivity and making desirable consumer products.
Musk, for one, is expected to point out that all Tesla vehicles and SpaceX rockets are manufactured in the United States, according to a person familiar with his thinking.