President Donald Trump will huddle with the leaders of Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft and other top technology companies on Monday, as his administration tries to harness Silicon Valley’s expertise to upgrade the dated inner workings of the U.S. government.
Much like his predecessors in the White House, Trump and his team believe that Washington, D.C., has been too slow to adapt to the digital age. They fret that the lumbering federal bureaucracy is hamstrung by outmoded technology, often in such troubling ways that veterans have a hard time obtaining their medical records. And they want federal agencies to start taking advantage of new tools, including artificial intelligence, to address lingering ills, like fraudulent government spending.
Trump’s solution: The American Technology Council, as first reported by Recode in May, a collection of federal agency chiefs who will spend Monday seeking advice from the country’s leading tech executives, while discussing the policy challenges facing the industry itself, including high-skilled immigration.
On one hand, Trump and the tech sector have shared aims: Both want to modernize government, and tech companies in particular long have sought reforms that might help them sell more of their services to the feds.
Still, the high-profile White House huddle — the beginning of the administration’s five-day focus on technology — comes at a time of renewed tension between Trump and the industry.
The relationship has always been chilly, dating back to Trump’s critical comments on the campaign trail — and their subsequent attempt at reconciliation at Trump Tower, weeks before he assumed the presidency. But it cooled once again this month when Trump announced his intent to withdraw from an international climate change agreement that many business leaders have publicly supported. Some of the strongest rebukes have come from Silicon Valley; Elon Musk, the leader of SpaceX and Tesla, said he would cease advising Trump on economic issues.
On a call with reporters, senior White House officials on Friday stressed that the Trump administration recognizes “no one is going to agree with everyone on every issue.” Despite the blowback, they said that tech giants and the White House have a “bigger relationship,” one that transcends a disagreement over the Paris climate pact — or any other single political spat.
Slated to attend the Monday gathering: Jeff Bezos, the leader of Amazon; Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple; Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google’s parent, Alphabet; Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft; Safra Catz, the CEO of Oracle; Alex Karp, the leader of Palantir; and top executives of Accenture, Adobe, Akamai, Intel, IBM, OpenGov, MasterCard, Qualcomm, SAP and VMware.
Others, like Valley venture capitalists Peter Thiel and John Doerr, will also be in the room. Thiel, in particular, has backed Palantir, and he served as one of Trump’s advisers during his transition into the White House.
This time, they’ll work alongside Chris Liddell, a top aide to Trump — and the former chief financial officer at Microsoft — who is spearheading the American Technology Council. The effort officially falls under the umbrella of the Office of American Innovation, the digitally minded government reform project launched by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and chief adviser.
Trump himself is slated to join for some of the Monday affair, as is Vice President Mike Pence, senior White House officials said. Missing in action, however, are some of the government’s leading science and tech aides. Trump has not yet nominated individuals for many of those positions, including the country’s chief technology officer — and the administration declined on Friday to detail when such announcements might come.
The White House nonetheless has planned its big tech gathering much like a corporate boardroom retreat — with high-profile billionaire tech executives to be split up into working groups, focused on issues like digitizing government services. As a guiding principle, the White House believes it “should be as easy to apply for benefits as it is to deposit a check on your phone,” it told tech executives in a memo preceding the meeting. It seeks improvements “from the days of outdated websites, unhelpful call centers, and paper-based forms.”
Meanwhile, the Trump administration aims to address cyber-security challenges, overhaul the way government buys technology and pursue new programs that might allow tech workers to serve brief tours of duty in the U.S. government. And the White House has taken special interest in tapping the tech industry’s expertise in fast-growing new sectors like big data and machine learning to root out fraudulent uses of federal resources. To do that, the Trump administration acknowledges, it has to commence another, even greater push to improve the data already in the government’s possession.
Other more difficult subjects, like immigration, round out the day’s schedule. In recent months, the Trump administration has sought to bring new oversight to the country’s H-1B visa program, arguing that it has allowed some companies to outsource jobs that could have been filled by Americans. Even though the tech industry sees a need for similar reforms, there’s lingering outrage in Silicon Valley over Trump’s immigration order targeting majority-Muslim countries — now in the hands of the Supreme Court. It has left some fearful that high-skilled immigration could someday face new limits, too.
Trump is hardly the first president to try to leverage Silicon Valley in a bid to rethink the way Washington works. Tech giants similarly offered their aid to former President Barack Obama, who spent eight years trying to digitize more of the government’s services. His administration also sought to release new federal data for private-sector use, while overhauling technology at embattled agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Not all of Obama’s efforts proved successful — the launch of Healthcare.gov is chief among the mishaps. But the former Democratic president still left in place two tech-focused SWAT teams to aid federal agencies that sought to tap technology in more efficient ways. Trump, for now, has kept both intact.
What has changed, however, are the politics. Nearly every tech company participating at the inaugural meeting of the American Technology Council refused to acknowledge its attendance before White House officials released a roster this weekend. To some, the silence seemed to be a byproduct of the intense blowback that many tech executives already have faced from their Trump-wary employees, who have protested the president vigorously — and who believe that their companies shouldn’t be cooperating with the White House at all.
In recent days, a group called Tech Solidarity — an organization that hosts meet-ups of politically active engineers in the Bay Area, New York City and beyond — urged tech workers to raise their voices. Its leader, Maciej Ceglowski, asked supporters to email their bosses and encourage them to decline the invitation to the White House.
“I would urge people to look at the last six months,” Ceglowski told Recode. “We’ve learned how this administration operates. ... This isn’t somebody who is persuadable in the traditional way. You’re not going to sit at the table and make a cogent argument to tip him over on an important issue.”
Musk, for one, appears to have opted against attending the meeting, a decision that seems to stem from Trump’s decision to remove the U.S. from the 190-nation strong Paris Accord. A spokesman for Musk at Tesla did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment.
Facebook, meanwhile, had been invited, sources told Recode, but neither Mark Zuckerberg, its leader, nor Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, are attending. The company did not immediately respond for this story.
Beyond Monday’s meeting, the White House plans to convene another gathering of tech leaders: A June 22 session to discuss emerging industries, including drones and the so-called “Internet of Things,” as well as the 5G wireless technologies that power those tools.
Some of the tech industry’s leading investors have also been invited to that meeting, organized by the White House’s top science and research office, to discuss ways to make it easier for them to provide financial support to those startups. Days later, the White House is expected to announce new tech tools at the Department of Veterans Affairs, senior officials said.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.