By Olivier Douliery/Pool via Bloomberg.
When ordinary Americans have a problem with their computer, they go to the Genius Bar or call the Geek Squad. Donald Trump summons the billionaire leaders of America’s biggest companies to solve his tech problems for him. And he’s using his executive powers as president of the United States to help.
On Monday, Trump signed an executive order creating the American Technology Council, whose goal it will be to “coordinate the vision, strategy, and direction for the Federal Government’s use of information technology [I.T.] and the delivery of services through information technology.” According to a scoop from Axios’s Mike Allen, the president intends to invite a number of major tech executives to the White House next month for a summit to discuss how Silicon Valley can help the administration bring government services into the 21st century.
The initiative will be led by Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as part of his White House Office of American Innovation, and headed up by two of his lieutenants—Chris Liddell, a former Microsoft executive, and Reed Cordish, a real-estate investor and developer. Hardly anyone is exempt from serving on the council, according to Trump’s order, which names himself as chairman but also includes seats for Vice President Mike Pence; the secretaries of Defense, Commerce, Homeland Security; the directors of National Intelligence and the Office of Management and Budget; and about a dozen other officials. Assuming the White House can find a big enough room, the council is also expected to consist of roughly 20 tech executives.
Outsourcing much of the work to Silicon Valley is a smart move for Kushner, who at age 36 and with no previous government experience has also been tasked with negotiating peace in the Middle East, improving health care for veterans, overseeing his father-in-law’s infrastructure plan, reforming the criminal-justice system, and solving America’s opioid epidemic, among other responsibilities. Allen reports that participating C.E.O.s will spend “half a day in working sessions” to help brainstorm ideas for the president’s son-in-law.
It’s not yet known which tech leaders will agree to serve on the Council, given the animosity among many liberal Bay Area executives toward the Trump administration. Merely associating with the president proved toxic for Tesla and SpaceX C.E.O. Elon Musk and Uber C.E.O. Travis Kalanick, who previously stepped down from a White House business advisory board under pressure. Last summer, 145 leaders from major tech companies signed an open letter denouncing Trump’s candidacy, adding that he would be a “disaster for innovation.” Several companies, including Google, have since seen large-scale demonstrations by employees in opposition to Trump’s policies on immigration. (Uber has already said that Kalanick is “not participating” in Kushner’s council.)
Still, Allen reports that some execs have “shown excitement about the bipartisan issue of modernizing government.” Presumably that’s not all that excites them: while the Valley has rejected Trump’s rhetoric on immigration, tech investors are likely salivating at the massive corporate tax cut Trump has been dangling, which may include a territorial tax system that could save big companies like Apple and Google billions of dollars.
Trump isn’t the first president to attempt to update the government’s aging tech infrastructure. Former president Barack Obama made some progress in modernizing government I.T. and launched the U.S. Digital Service during his tenure. Trump could surely use the help from Silicon Valley: a number of important science and technology-related roles in the federal government, including U.S. C.T.O. and chief data scientist, have yet to be filled, and the president himself seems unable to string together a coherent thought about cybersecurity. “You know cyber is becoming so big today. It’s becoming something that a number of years ago, a short number of years ago, wasn’t even a word,” Trump said in September. “And now the cyber is so big, and you know you look at what they’re doing with the Internet.” Perhaps if Sheryl Sandberg or Jeff Bezos decide to join the American Technology Council, they can explain it to him.