WASHINGTON — President Trump and leaders of major U.S. tech companies remain at odds on immigration and climate change, but they met Monday at the White House to work on a joint project: Using technology to make government more efficient.
“Today, many of our agencies rely on painfully outdated technology, and yet, we have the greatest people in technology that the world has ever seen right here with us in this room,” Trump told his guests, kicking off what aides have dubbed a “technology week” of events focused on innovation in the government.
“Government needs to catch up with the technology revolution,” he continued.
This was the inaugural meeting of Trump’s American Technology Council, a group of tech leaders and administration officials committed to modernizing government information technology and digital services.
Trump’s guests at the White House included Apple CEO Tim Cook, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Oracle co-CEO Safra Catz, and Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet.
Noticeably absent was Facebook. CEO Mark Zuckerberg was invited, but could not attend the meeting due to scheduling conflicts, said a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to comment publicly.
After Trump asked his guests at the technology roundtable speak individually during a photo opportunity, Cook said the government should have the most modern equipment, and “today it doesn’t.” He added that computer coding should be a required subject in school. For his part, Bezos said the United States needs to work on machine learning and artificial intelligence.
During a session with the same CEOs earlier in the day, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner said the Trump administration wants tech companies to help “modernize the government’s technology infrastructure,” by developing or consulting on new solutions for complex challenges such as delivering veterans’ health care benefits and managing budgets.
Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, helped the organize the meeting as head of the White House Office of American Innovation. The technology council is part of his purview.
In Kushner’s presentation Monday – among his rare remarks in public – he said federal agencies maintain 6,100 data centers, many of which can be consolidated. He said the government still has data systems that are up to 56 years old, including the continued use of floppy disks at the Pentagon.
“Together,” he told the tech group, “we will unleash the creativity of the private sector to provide citizen services in a way that has never happened before.”
Yet the White House summit, the second between the administration and some of the technology industry’s biggest names, highlights a relationship that has been fraught with tension and sharp political differences.
Few in left-leaning Silicon Valley publicly supported Trump, with the notable exception of venture capitalist and Facebook board member Peter Thiel, an outspoken libertarian. Adding to the acrimony, dozens of executives signed an open letter opposing Trump’s presidency.
And some of those from the tech industry who initially agreed to serve a separate business advisory council, such as Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, soon broke ranks.
Kalanick resigned from the council following charges the ride-sharing service tried to profit from Trump’s proposed travel ban from certain Muslim countries in February. (The company denied the charges.) Musk bolted the council this month, after the president said the U.S. would exit the Paris climate accord.
The president has skewered Apple and Amazon in tweets and on the campaign trail for sending jobs overseas and has demanded they and other companies build more products in the U.S. He’s also taken issue with tech companies’ strong stands to protect widespread encryption on consumer devices for the sake of users’ digital security and privacy; Trump’s team has fought against strong encryption as a hindrance to law enforcement and anti-terrorism activities.
Trump has also advocated overhauling the H-1B work-visa program that technology companies have long relied on to bring top foreign engineering talent to their U.S.-based locations.
Yet there are areas where the tech industry and Trump administration agree. Reforming the tax code is one example. Trump has proposed to slash the corporate tax rate to 15% from 35%, which could prompt tech giants to repatriate money kept overseas. The president’s anti-regulatory policies would also assist startups.
The president last Thursday signed an executive order to boost apprenticeship programs and jobs training to fill some of the country’s six million open jobs, especially highly skilled positions in the tech industry.
“There are clearly areas where we’re not nearly on the same page,” Cook told Bloomberg Businessweek in a recent interview. “We’re dramatically different. I hope there’s some areas where we’re not. His focus on jobs is good. So we’ll see.”
SAP, a major software company whose CEO Bill McDermott attended the summit, “supports the stated goals of the American Technology Council and its efforts to transform and modernize the federal government, and innovate how agencies use and deliver information,” company spokeswoman Nicola Leske said in a statement.
During the discussion, Trump made a joke about the Democratic National Committee hack during last year’s presidential election, in which private information was published on websites such as WikiLeaks. After Tom Leighton, CEO of Akamai, spoke about how his company protects website from cyber attacks, Trump cracked: “The DNC could have used you.”
The U.S. intelligence community has blamed Russia for the DNC hack, part of its campaign of cyberattacks and fake news to undermine Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The FBI and multiple congressional committees are investigating whether Trump associates colluded with Russia during the campaign.
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