Once upon a time, a long time ago now, I asked Oracle's Larry Ellison which political party he supported. (It was a long time ago, you could do that sort of thing back then.) He smiled and gave me a diplomatic and amusing response:
I don’t believe in democracy.
What he might have said is, 'I don’t get involved in backing political campaigns in public', a state of affairs particularly wise in an effective two-party state such as the USA.
As such, we’ve typically seen tech leaders take care to support both Republican and Democrat candidates and campaigns.
That’s changed somewhat over recent years with political activism in the name of equality leading to some head-on confrontations between the likes of Salesforce and Republican governors and senators. The battles with the likes of Indiana governor Mike Pence, now vice-President Elect Mike Pence, over discriminatory legislation have put Silicon Valley on a political footing.
Yesterday, as has been well-documented, a number of technology industry CEOs got in the elevator at The Trump Tower in New York for a photo opp with Pence and his boss, President Elect Donald Trump that was designed to do….well, what exactly?
I want to help
During the election campaign, Trump had been openly antagonistic towards some leading technology firms. Of Apple, he’d called for a boycott of its products after the firm wouldn’t hack into the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino killers, while Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos ownership of the ‘hostile’ Washington Post had him threatened with a monopoly investigation.
And of course there was the famous commitment to get Bill Gates to shut down parts of the internet. Gates wasn’t in attendance yesterday - he’d made the trip up the tower the day before, emerging to utter platitudes about a new JFK. Whether he meant building a new Camelot or ending up on the brink of nuclear war in the Bay of Pigs wasn’t entirely clear.
So what was yesterday all about? Rapprochement with the US’s most important economic power base?
Or a chance to sit various important people down and give them a good ticking-off, as had happened when a similar meeting with media leaders was staged a few weeks ago and attendees were essentially berated for not being Sean Hannity.
It seems that the intention was, at least in public, for the former to be the case. I say in public - pool reporters were only allowed in the room for the carefully-staged photo shoot and the opening remarks. What happened after that will only emerge in the coming days and weeks through leaks and off-the-record comments.
But the opening statements at least were avuncular and centered on bridge-building as Trump told attendees to call him for assistance at any time:
We want you to keep going with the incredible innovation…There’s nobody like you in the world.…Anything we can do to help this go along, we’re going to be there for you. You call my people, you call me. It doesn’t make any difference. We have no formal chain of command around here.
It was a carefully selected group, of course. Trump, who reported personally vetoed Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey after the social media firm refused to create a 'Crooked Hillary' emoji, boasted:
I won’t tell you the hundreds of calls we’ve had, asking to come to this meeting.
But PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel took control of the overall vetting, rejecting companies that were too small or which were ‘monsters’, according to Trump.
So there was Oracle CEO Safra Catz, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, IBM CEO Ginni Rommety and Apple CEO Tim Cook all in attendance.
But no sign of HPE CEO Meg Whitman, who savaged Trump in the election campaign, or Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, meaning Pence didn’t come face-to-face with his bete noir…yet.
Much attention has been paid in the media to the seating plan. Certainly there’s a lot to be read into it. Trump is in the center of the table, flanked by Pence and Thiel and facing directly out at his own transition team staffers on the opposite site. No direct eye contact here with any of the techies.
Having Trump seated in the middle meant that various attendees would essentially be unseen by the President Elect unless he or they actively leant out. That might be no bad thing in the case of Apple’s Cook, whose ‘deer in the headlights’ facial expressions were a story in their own right.
In terms of pushing the wider ‘tech friendly’ messaging to the wider world, the layout did also mean that pictures taken of Trump’s side of the table from any direction would have at least one female exec, Bezos of Amazon, Apple’s Tim Cook, Google’s Larry Page or Tesla’s Elon Musk in the frame.
In terms of name recognition by Joe Public, that’s a higher hit rate that the other side of the table with IBM’s Ginny Rommety, Intel’s Brian Kzranich and Cisco’s Chuck Robbins.
That’s important if a major driver for this exercise is to create a wider consciousness interpretation of a Trump administration working with the tech industry to Make America Great Again etc etc.
Right now everybody in this room has to like me, at least a little bit.
So said Trump, boasting of the bounce in the US stock market of recent weeks. From a financial point of view, maybe that’s the case among some of those in attendance. As a propaganda exercise, it served its purpose. The mainstream media headlines today talk about olive branches and reconciliation.
Prior to the meeting, Oracle’s Catz had said she was attending to:
tell the president-elect that we are with him and will help in any way we can. If he can reform the tax code, reduce regulation and negotiate better trade deals, the U.S. technology industry will be stronger and more competitive than ever.
After the session, most attendees stayed tight-lipped about what had transpired, although Amazon’s Bezos issued a statement saying:
I found today’s meeting with the President-elect, his transition team, and tech leaders to be very productive. I shared the view that the administration should make innovation one of its key pillars, which would create a huge number of jobs across the whole country, in all sectors, not just tech—agriculture, infrastructure, manufacturing—everywhere.
If there is some positivity to come out of this, then all to the good - the US economy and the wider global one cannot afford a state of ongoing antagonism between the White House and the tech industry.
But it’s going to take more than one photo shoot to put everything on an even keel. We’ve seen this week the destructive power of Trump tweeting against companies with the negative impact on the Lockheed Martin share price. If this practice continues, how long before a tech provider comes in the firing line?
Then there are unanswered questions around immigration and visas, tax breaks, threatened financial penalties for moving work offshore and the fate of various global trade treaties, not to mention the future of US-China relations.
And then there’s the question of equality rights for US workers and the inevitable demands for ‘closing down the internet’ or attempts to restrict civil liberties in the event of terrorist or criminal activity. It was noticeable that with the Justice Department still gunning for Microsoft over access to overseas data, CEO Nadella was the only delegate to bring his lawyer along with him, in the shape of Microsoft’s Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith. A wise precaution, some might think.
All told, there’s far more likelihood of trouble ahead. Getting Tim Cook in the same room as Trump doesn’t suddenly make all the tensions go away, as Cook’s expression in some of the photos shows.
Side note - Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff posted this on Twitter yesterday from Washington.
At least this was one tech CEO who knew he was watching a deliberate sleight of hand.