Less than a week before the 2016 presidential election, when most media observers thought Hillary Clinton was a lock to win, Elon Musk called CNBC and unloaded on Donald Trump. “He doesn't seem to have the sort of character that reflects well on the United States,” he said.
In the three months since Trump's surprise victory, Musk has changed course, becoming something of an ally to Trump. When the then president-elect held a tech summit in December, Musk agreed to attend. He wasn’t the only one. Apple’s Tim Cook, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, and others joined him at the table. But they didn’t agree to a larger role advising the Trump administration as did Musk, who has met with the president and his team more than any other tech industry leader, save for Peter Thiel.
Last weekend, after Trump signed an executive order barring Syrian refugees from the United States, along with refugees and citizens from six other Muslim-majority nations, several tech leaders released statements of opposition, if not outrage.
Sergey Brin, the Google co-founder who first came to America as a refugee, attended a protest at San Francisco International Airport, and spoke at a mass walk-out by more than 2000 Google employees on Monday. “I came here to the U.S. at age 6 with my family from the Soviet Union, which was at that time the greatest enemy the U.S. had,” he said. “[Even] under the threat of nuclear annihilation ... the U.S. had the courage to take me and my family in as refugees.”
Tim Cook wrote to Apple employees, criticizing Trump’s immigration order in uncompromising terms, as did Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Microsoft and Amazon have since announced plans to challenge the order in court. Yesterday, Uber’s Travis Kalanick quit Trump’s economic advisory council in response to the #deleteuber campaign that followed in the order’s wake—and, according to The New York Times, pointed questioning from Uber’s employees as to why he hadn’t resigned already.
Musk has also come out against the order, albeit gently. On Twitter, he described it as “not the best way to address the country’s challenges.” And unlike Kalanick, he remains committed to his advisory role in the Trump administration, even amid reports that some Tesla customers are cancelling their Model 3 orders in protest.
“I cannot support a company where the CEO is acting as a conduit to the rise of white nationalism and fascism in the United States,” one customer wrote on a cancellation form obtained by BuzzFeed. “I’ve always been a fan of Mr. Musk’s, but his recent actions have been abhorrent. ... Take a stand, Elon.”
Last night, Musk took to Twitter to defend his continuing relationship with Trump. “Advisory councils simply provide advice and attending does not mean that I agree with actions by the Administration,” he wrote. “In tomorrow’s meeting, I and others will express our objections to the recent executive order on immigration and offer suggestions for changes to the policy.”
Musk, who is an immigrant himself, says he understands the perspective of those who object to his attendance at the meeting, but he believes that “engaging [with Trump] on critical issues will on balance serve the greater good.”
The “on balance” part is important. Musk knows that every time he accepts an invitation from the White House, he allows Trump to leverage his unique cultural status in American life, as perhaps the most admired technologist since Steve Jobs. In the decidedly pro-immigration technology industry, many were already suspicious of Trump, and are especially so now, following the executive order. Many Tesla owners hold similar views. Musk is paying a price for these repeated meetings, among his current staff, future prospective hires, and his customers. And yet, he seems to think that any reputational hit he takes will be more than offset by the good he can do as a policy advisor to the president.
I take Musk at his word that his decision is borne of this balance, and not narrower business interests involving Tesla or SpaceX. Even in Silicon Valley, where it is commonplace to talk of changing the world, Musk has always stood out for his earnestness. Few others are so comfortable using explicitly moral language to describe their technological ambitions. He once told me that his rocket company was a “humanitarian” project. It’s no surprise that Musk would think he’d spotted some greater good that others can't see.
But is he right?
It must give him a chill to consider the fates of Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio, who both made trips to Trump Tower in late 2016, hoping to persuade the then-president-elect that climate change is a real and urgent problem. DiCaprio met with Trump on December 7th, two days after Gore. On December 8th, Trump repaid these kindnesses by picking Scott Pruitt to run the Environmental Protection Agency—the same Scott Pruitt who helped lead the legal fight against the Clean Power Plan, the Obama Administration’s most aggressive climate change mitigation policy. As my colleague Robinson Meyer explained at the time, “what distinguishes Pruitt’s [time as Oklahoma’s Attorney General] is not just his opposition to using regulation to tackle climate change, but his opposition to using regulation to tackle any environmental problem at all.”
In Musk’s statement on Twitter, he said that one of his goals is to “accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy.” According to Bloomberg, he has already floated the idea of a carbon tax to the president. But so far, there is no evidence that Musk has had any effect on the administration’s climate and energy policy. And in his statement on Twitter, Musk did not indicate why he thinks he’ll be more persuasive on immigration, which replaced birtherism as Trump’s signature issue at the very start of his presidential campaign.
Musk has left himself one out, however. “At this time ...” he said, in his Twitter statement, implying that he could one day change his mind as to the merits of continued engagement with Trump. Sooner or later, he may decide that his voice is more powerful in protest than it is as a soft whisper in the president’s ear. Whether he suffers a serious loss of stature in the meantime remains to be seen.