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President Trump wants a ‘sweeping transformation’ of government tech, he says at a White House meeting with execs

The leaders of Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft, who met with Trump on Monday, have a few asks of their own.

U.S. President Donald Trump, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos attend a meeting of the American Technology Council in the State Dining Room of the White House, June 19, 2017. in Washington, D.C.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

President Donald Trump on Monday called for a “sweeping transformation of the federal government’s technology,” beginning his push to update the dated inner workings of Washington that drew some praise — and then some public requests — from the top tech executives at Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft.

After a day of meetings at the White House with those and other tech leaders — some of whom have been his fiercest corporate critics in the past — Trump admitted that the feds had to “catch up” with the private sector. He said federal agencies had to deliver “dramatically better services to citizens,” for example, while buying cheaper, more efficient technology and adopting “stronger protections from cyber attacks.”

The comments officially concluded the inaugural meeting of the White House’s American Technology Council, a new effort chartered by Trump in May to bring the lumbering federal bureaucracy into the digital age. The group has a broad mandate — converting paper-based forms into easy-to-use websites, for example, while helping the government buy better technology and take advantage of new tools like artificial intelligence.

As the council begins its task, though, Trump sought the tech industry’s help, convening a day of private brainstorming sessions with top executives on Monday afternoon — and several of those leaders, flanking Trump at a table later in the evening, responded with a few asks of their own.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos called on the U.S. government to take advantage of commercial technology — the sort of tools his own company sells. Palantir CEO Alex Karp said he had offered his support in private sessions, earlier in the day, about ways to tap big data in order to spot fraudulent federal spending. And Apple CEO Tim Cook — who also acknowledged that the U.S. had much work to do to modernize — said Washington should make coding a requirement in schools.

On the surface, the White House and the tech industry seem aligned in the push to modernize government — not least because companies like Amazon, Google and Palantir increasingly seek new ways to sell their devices and services to federal agencies.

But Trump and tech have long maintained an icy relationship, most recently battling over the president’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from an international climate agreement. The move led Elon Musk, the leader of SpaceX and Tesla, to skip the high-profile Monday summit, after sources said he previously planned to attend.

In recent days, however, White House officials have sought to downplay any tension between the Trump administration and the tech giants. The president’s leading spokesman, Sean Spicer, stressed on Monday that the president is not fazed by political differences with the likes of Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Alphabet who backed Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election.

“I think it's pretty telling that the president brings these kind of people together,” Spicer said. “We will work with individuals, regardless of what their past political beliefs are, to further the president's agenda and to bring ideas to the table.”

Among the invitees Monday were the leaders of Adobe, Akamai, Amazon, Apple, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Oracle and Qualcomm, as well as some of Silicon Valley’s leading investors, like Peter Thiel, who previously advised Trump during his presidential transition. Opening the day’s events, Jared Kushner — one of Trump’s top advisers — emphasized that the government’s tech troubles are legion.

Federal agencies maintain more than 6,000 costly data centers, Kushner told tech executives, some of which are decades old and cost taxpayers great sums. Portions of the Pentagon still rely on floppy disks, he charged. And some of the government’s most egregious tech troubles have great consequences: At the Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, it remains too difficult for former servicemen and women to obtain their electronic health records, Kushner said.

The executives in attendance then broke up into smaller groups, some focused on areas like big data and others on workforce development, as the White House explores new ways to convince tech employees to serve tours of duty in the U.S. government. Still a third group focused on high-skilled immigration, a major flashpoint for Trump and the tech sector.

The top tech companies have lambasted the president for signing a second executive order targeting refugees from majority-Muslim countries, and many fear that Trump might seek to limit high-skilled immigration, citing his comments on the campaign trail. Trump, however, noted during his public remarks on Monday that he sought to “solve” the issue once and for all — and without providing specifics, the president said he wanted to help Silicon Valley “get the people you want.”

Following the meeting Monday, the White House plans to continue its so-called “tech week” push. For one thing, it will convene another round of companies and investors to discuss “emerging” technologies on Thursday.

At that session, top officials at the FAA will huddle with drone companies about the regulatory and safety challenges facing their industry, according to a source familiar with the White House’s plans. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai also will be on hand, as the Trump administration looks to solicit the tech industry's thoughts about 5G wireless technologies and the "Internet of Things," the source told Recode. And other senior White House aides will discuss how to finance those devices and services alongside Silicon Valley’s top investors.

The White House plans to announce additional tech reforms targeting the Department of Veterans Affairs on Friday. That agency’s leader, David Shulkin, will travel to Arkansas this week, partly for a meeting at Walmart headquarters, “to learn about their logistical supply chain program and how its best practices can be adapted to help the VA.”

In many ways, Trump’s efforts during “tech week” continue the work of his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, who spent eight years trying to modernize the U.S. government. Obama also targeted and tried to improve agencies like the VA, and upon his departure from the White House, he left two tech “SWAT teams” to help agencies come into the digital age. Those organizations, like the U.S. Digital Service, remain in place, even though Trump has yet to fill other, key government science and technology positions.

Trump, though, did not acknowledge that work. At one point, he calculated the companies in attendance totaled “$3.5 trillion dollars of market value in this room,” which he said amounted to “almost the exact number we have created since my election.” Later, he quipped about the poor cyber security of his Democratic opponents during the 2016 presidential election.

“Government needs to catch up with the technology revolution,” Trump said. “We’re going to change that with the help of great American businesses like the people assembled.”

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