Recode did not have a front row seat, but found out anyway.
The leaders of tech were close-mouthed their meeting with President-elect Donald Trump yesterday in New York, saying little about it, both before and after in public or online. Save for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos calling the confab “very productive” — the verbal equivalent of dead air — execs like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Alphabet CEO Larry Page, Apple CEO Tim Cook, SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk did not comment about what was said in the room and most of the press reports afterward were vague.
Thank goodness, you have Recode to tell you who said what in the room after Trump did a decidedly odd little handshake with investor Peter Thiel — who rounded up the Silicon Valley potentates for him — talked about a stock market “bounce” and how smart those gathered were.
After the press left and the doors were closed though, the visitors from the digital world actually did try to bring up a number of major issues with Trump — though I may not have the order of topics quite right — and those gathered there. That included Trump’s three eldest kids, which most sources close to the execs (no, I am not saying which ones) thought was inappropriate on a number of levels.
“They took up three seats that should have gone to key tech people,” said one source, pointing to the odd absence of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Another source said that the conflict of interest seemed clear, while another just laughed and joked, “The U.S. is now a family business, I guess.”
One Trump family member did rise to a level of interest for the group: Son-in-law and chief whisperer Jared Kushner, who kicked off the session and seemed more engaged than any other administration member there.
“It was clear that Kushner was the one thinking about this stuff and framing it,” said one source with knowledge of the meeting.
At the top of the gathering, Microsoft’s Nadella brought up perhaps the most thorny issue: Immigration and how the government can help tech with things like HB1 visas to keep and bring in more talent. He pointed out that much of the company’s spending on research and development was in the U.S., even if 50 percent of the sales were elsewhere, so that immigration would benefit those here.
Surprisingly to the group, Trump apparently responded favorably, “Let’s fix that,” he said without a specific promise and then asked: “What can I do to make it better?”
Apple’s Cook brought up another related issue, that of science, technology, engineering and math education, which has been a big initiative of President Barack Obama and also was pushed be Trump presidential rival Hillary Clinton.
Trump has said little about it in the campaign and when he addressed it in a debate, turned it into a speech on school choice and state control of education.
That issue was also pushed by Facebook’s Sandberg, who focused Trump on STEM education for women and underrepresented minorities. She then brought up the issue of paid maternity leave. In the campaign, Trump unveiled a plan for six weeks of leave for women, while Clinton was advocating for 12 weeks for parents of either sex.
Trump also agreed to look into her suggestions and called on about Vice President-elect Mike Pence to work on the issue, although concrete next steps were not discussed.
One of the most interesting exchanges was with Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt, who briefly noted that he pondered what he would do if he were president and then made the point that government information technology programs were antiquated and unsafe and needed to be upgraded.
He then suggested to Trump that he be the “software president,” a phrase Trump misheard as “soft” president. Trump was not going to be soft! Laughs all around!
What else? Amazon’s Bezos was apparently very voluble and aimed his points at how U.S. companies have a hard time succeeding in China and what the government can do about it. Oracle CEO Safra Catz talked about the cloud, which she characterized as a little hyped (not a surprise from a database company). IBM CEO Ginni Rometty talked about job creation, having earlier penned an op-ed promising the company would bring 25,000 more jobs to the U.S.
SpaceX and Tesla’s Musk also participated in a number of discussions and later brought up one of his key issues, climate change, in other meetings at Trump Tower.
Here’s an outlier that I personally liked, which Alphabet’s Page brought up about infrastructure spending: The need to rejigger the electrical grids (something about AC current versus DC current, but everyone I spoke to was a little confused by this).
Overall, one source said the meeting was “weird, but not as awkward as it could have been.”
Another said Trump was “reasonable and fair the whole time.”
Still another said that suggestions about regular meeting was raised, it was unlikely that those gathered would do so again in such a public manner.
While I have called the meeting not much more than a photo op, noting that tech leaders were wrong to miss the opportunity to make a strong public joint statement on key values and issues important to them and their employees, one source said that the group was put between a rock and a not-soft place by the election.
“It was what it was, which was a public show of truce,” said one source, noting the hostile nature of the relationship between Trump and tech during the campaign. “Everyone got to meet him and got to bring up some of tech’s issues, so that’s a victory of a sort. We’ll see what comes next.”