Months after endorsing a Republican takeover of Congress, Elon Musk paid a rare visit to Washington this week, huddling with top aides to President Biden and new House GOP leaders in a bid to advance the interests of his sprawling business empire.
The Beltway tour took Musk to the halls of Congress beginning Thursday, as he met with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — a friend and political ally who later quipped to reporters that the billionaire “came to wish me a happy birthday.”
A day later, Musk paid visits to other Democratic and Republican lawmakers, including GOP officials who are actively pressing one of his companies, Twitter, over allegations of anti-conservative bias. He had a private audience with Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, who is probing whether the U.S. government played a role in Twitter’s decision to suppress a 2020 news story about Biden’s son.
Elsewhere in the city, though, Musk chiefly reprised a different role — as the top executive of the car company Tesla. Sitting down Friday with two of the president’s top advisers, Musk discussed federal investments in electric vehicles, charging stations and electrification, according to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who confirmed the gathering during her daily briefing.
Musk’s relationship with Biden has long been strained: He’s sparred with the president openly over perceived snubs of Tesla and a third company he leads, the rocket-maker SpaceX. But the billionaire appeared to put aside his qualms to secure a conversation with two Biden aides who help oversee billions of dollars in new federal investments in green energy.
Many of the federal policymakers who ultimately met with Musk declined to discuss their conversations — and the tech executive did not respond to a request for comment.
But as Musk’s plane departed the region midday Friday, his short burst of shuttle diplomacy illuminated the growing complexity of his task — as the leader of three massive companies with complicated, conflicting needs, and an increasingly outspoken political figure in his own right.
“He has a reality distortion field, coming to Washington believing he can make all those conflicting parts work just by the force of will,” said David Karpf, an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. “What I suspect is that he’s going to find that really doesn’t work.”
For Musk, the political and economic stakes are high: Tesla is the world’s most valuable automaker, SpaceX endeavors to capture lucrative contracts from the government and Twitter, while smaller, possesses outsize influence in the national conversation. Yet it was Musk’s purchase of the latter company last fall that upended his political fortunes — as well as his finances — while raising new, urgent questions about the extent to which his corporate interests might shape his handling of online content.
The billionaire has said his decision to buy the embattled social network was in part driven by his commitment to restoring “free speech,” which he has described as allowing people to speak freely “within the bounds of the law.” Since assuming control, though, Musk has dismantled many of the key teams at Twitter focused on limiting the spread of violent content and misinformation and overturned the suspensions on many conservatives that violated company rules, including former president Donald Trump.
Many Democrats have reacted with alarm over Musk’s efforts, believing he has unwound the company’s previous investments in safety. They have also blasted his decision to suspend the accounts of prominent journalists, including The Washington Post’s Drew Harwell, who remains locked out of Twitter.
But Republicans largely have cheered Musk’s takeover of Twitter, optimistic that he would reverse many of the previous leadership’s content-moderation decisions. When Musk’s plans to buy the company became public in April, for example, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) tweeted that “free speech is making a comeback.”
For his part, Musk increasingly has aligned himself in recent months with conservatives who are in power — and eager to put the force of government behind their fierce criticism of the tech industry. A former Democratic supporter who last May switched publicly to the GOP, he even told voters in the 2022 election to choose a Republican Congress, a comment that marked a radical departure for social media executives who usually steer clear of such endorsements.
The tech mogul’s whirlwind week began with him sitting for hours of testimony in a federal securities lawsuit in San Francisco over his 2018 declaration he had “Funding secured” to take Tesla private at $420 a share. Musk, a defendant in the suit, took questions from the witness stand in a courthouse just a few minutes’ walk from the Twitter office.
Musk’s testimony wrapped up on Tuesday, and he almost immediately jetted to a factory event in Nevada. A day later, Musk delivered Tesla’s latest earnings report to investors, briefing them on a record year while trying to calm concerns that his acquisition of Twitter had distracted his attention, forced him to dilute Tesla’s stock value and tarnished the car company’s brand with politics.
“Let me check my Twitter account. So I’ve got 127 million followers. It continues to grow quite rapidly,” he said, later adding: “I might not be popular [with] some people but for the vast majority of people, my follower count speaks for itself.”
Musk arrived in the Washington area on Thursday, commencing a swing through a city that has come to see him as a polarizing force for his political views. Twice this week, he huddled with Jordan, now the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. The congressman long had needled Musk’s company and its peers for what he says is anti-conservative bias, though broadly there is no evidence that major social media sites systematically censor conservatives.
With Comer, meanwhile, the meeting on Friday appeared to pertain more directly to Musk’s recent political interests: The tech executive has promoted a series of leaked company communications related to Twitter’s handling of a story about Hunter Biden in 2020. Those leaked records, known as the “Twitter Files,” show the company independently decided to limit the spread of the article, without Democratic politicians, the Biden campaign or the FBI exerting control.
Acknowledging his visit, Musk tweeted at one point Thursday he also met with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), describing his conversations at the Capitol as focused on “ensuring that this platform is fair to both parties.” But an aide to Jeffries later told The Washington Post that the Democratic leader and Musk had only a coincidental encounter as the billionaire was leaving his meeting with McCarthy. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private exchange.
Just met with @SpeakerMcCarthy & @RepJeffries to discuss ensuring that this platform is fair to both parties— Mr. Tweet (@elonmusk) January 26, 2023
In his meetings with White House officials, Musk appeared to have a far different agenda, turning to the needs of Tesla and its electric cars. Two of Biden’s signature accomplishments — a roughly $1.2 trillion infrastructure law, and a subsequent package to combat climate change — include significant new investments that help consumers purchase electric vehicles and promote battery-charging stations nationwide.
Musk discussed those laws with White House aides Mitch Landrieu and John Podesta. The gathering itself appeared to reflect a change in tone for Musk from his recently hostile relationship with Biden.
Even on electric vehicles, where Musk and Biden’s interests align, the two men have had disagreements: An earlier version of Biden’s plans to incentivize the purchase of those cars included a $4,500 bonus credit that would have excluded Tesla. The issue stemmed from a requirement that qualifying vehicles must be union made, and Tesla is the only major American automaker whose manufacturing workforce is not unionized. Lawmakers ultimately dropped the provision amid fierce pushback from Musk, Tesla supporters and officials such as Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).
“For reasons unknown, @potus is unable to say the word ‘Tesla’” Musk tweeted last January. That followed a jab at Biden months earlier, when Musk wrote Biden was “still sleeping” after he felt SpaceX had not been recognized for its part in raising hundreds of millions for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. Musk similarly fumed in 2022 after Tesla was left out of a splashy event on the White House lawn showcasing major American automakers’ new and upcoming electric vehicle offerings.
On Friday, though, top White House officials declined to comment further on the meeting. Asked if it signaled a changing political relationship between Musk and the administration, though, Jean-Pierre said the conversation reflected how “important” Biden views climate goals, adding: “I will leave it there.”
Jeff Stein contributed to this report.