Tech relishes role as Trump antagonist
Tech companies are becoming President Trump’s chief antagonists in the business world.
On a number of issues, Silicon Valley is directly challenging the administration’s policies more forcefully than other industries.
Microsoft is suing the administration for ending the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provided legal protections for certain immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.
IBM has also take a lead role in that fight, filing briefs with the court in favor of the program and having CEO Ginni Rometty press lawmakers for a legislative fix.
Tech companies have also taken a lead in criticizing Trump’s new tariffs, worrying it could raise production costs, disrupt critical supply chains and discourage foreign investment in their industry.
Apple CEO Tim Cook also delivered a subtle jab at the president’s policies at Tuesday night’s state dinner with the leader of France. Cook invited Apple’s director of sustainability, former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, who is a strong supporter of the Paris climate accord, which Trump is withdrawing the U.S. from. Cook’s guest was also the only former Obama Cabinet member in the room.
The sense that the tech world is at loggerheads with Trump is also heightened by one of the president’s biggest feuds — with e-commerce giant Amazon.
Trump has hammered the company, questioning its deals with the post office to deliver packages and its tax bills. That fight is also partly fueled by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s ownership of The Washington Post.
Tech watchers say the tech-Trump divide is partly a culture clash.
Many workers in Silicon Valley back increased immigration, efforts to combat climate change, easing free-trade, and are left of center on social issues.
Trump is often going in a different direction.
Tech leaders have also found themselves under pressure from their employees, who are urging them to use their fortunes and public recognition to push back on Trump’s agenda.
Last year, IBM employees rallied around a petition urging their CEO to reconsider her role as an informal adviser to the administration on business and tech issues.
Other tech companies faced the same pressure from employees to take public stands against Trump policies, including on social issues that might not impact their bottom lines.
Tech leaders have been vocal supporters of LGBT rights. Executives from Salesforce and Google were among the first to speak out against Trump’s ban on transgender troops serving in the military.
But that activism also has potential pitfalls for tech.
Rob Atkinson, President of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a tech-focused think tank, called the industry’s frequent fights with the White House “risky.”
“It’s not an issue that’s central to the wellbeing of the industry,” he said about challenging the administration on social issues.
“I don’t know why the industry is wasting their political capital,” he added.
Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), which lobbies on behalf of technology companies, believes the industry has more leeway when it comes to criticizing Trump.
Shapiro cited the stock market, suggesting that business issues would always be paramount.
“There’s only one thing that Trump really measures himself by: the stock market. Tech companies are a big part of the stock market and he’s not going to do anything to jeopardize that,” Shapiro said.
But while the industry has long been at odds with Trump on cultural issues, they now find themselves frustrated by a number of policies such as tariffs and a crackdown on high-skilled visas they believe could hurt their bottom line.
In April, the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), a D.C. lobbying group representing major technology companies such as Apple, Facebook and Amazon, wrote to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin criticizing Trump’s tariffs and urging the administration to reconsider.
“Tariffs do not work,” ITI’s letter bluntly states. “They increase costs for American consumers, harm the American economy, inhibit job growth, and are inevitably reversed because of the negative economic impacts and political fallout.”
ITI has been joined by CTA, TechNet and other tech industry groups in opposing tariffs.
The industry has also voiced frustration that the administration is not more forceful at pushing back on the European Union (EU).
In recent years, EU regulators have taken a number of actions against U.S. tech companies, levying multi-billion dollar tax and antitrust penalties on companies including Apple and Google. Regulators are also about to implement a sweeping data privacy law that left Facebook and other internet companies scrambling to comply.
“I personally would love to see President Trump make this an issue. It’s a very important issue for American companies,” said Shapiro.
Under former President Obama, when the industry was much closer to the administration, tech found a vocal ally in then-Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, who blasted Europe’s actions as unfairly targeting U.S. businesses.
Some are skeptical of the idea that tech is taking on a role as a key antagonist to the administration, or that the two sides are sharply divided.
They note that the administration is still meeting with tech leaders and that the industry still gets many of the policies it wants enacted.
On Wednesday night, for example, first daughter and senior White House adviser Ivanka Trump discussed legislation to boost skills training to help workers find tech jobs during an event with senators and corporate executives.
Tech has scored huge wins from the White House in the form of deregulatory policies and tax reform that has resulted in a multibillion-dollar windfall for tech firms.
“We have a great relationship with the White House,” Shapiro insisted. “Their tech agenda matches our tech agenda.”
Other leaders seem to think so too. Despite her company opposing the Trump administration on DACA, IBM’s Rometty, along with Apple’s Cook, earned a rare invitation to Trump’s state dinner on Tuesday night.
Tech officials in the White House also dismiss any talk of a deep feud.
White House tech policy adviser Reed Cordish said in November that tech’s relationship with the White House is better than it appears.
“This is the most business-friendly White House I’ve ever seen,” acknowledged Shapiro.
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