June 17, 2017

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For Tech CEOs, Not Attending White House Summit Is Greater Risk

(This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal on June 17)

Technology executives at odds with the Trump administration see a bigger problem than attending a White House brainstorming session Monday—not attending.

Silicon Valley has been among the most vocal critics of President Donald Trump over his positions on issues such as climate change and immigration.  Still, representatives from Apple Inc., Amazon.com Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google, companies that have opposed his policies, are expected to make the cross-country trip to ensure their voices are heard. 

Also expected to attend are Intel Corp. Chief Executive Brian Krzanich, Oracle Corp. co-CEO Safra Katz, a member of Mr. Trump’s transition team, and Cisco Systems Corp. Chief Executive Chuck Robbins. 

“If you don’t show up, I think that’s the worst scenario,” Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook said in early May, when asked about the company’s relationship to the White House during an interview with CNBC.  “Because then you’re quiet and this doesn’t do your cause any good, or your point of view any good.” 

Communication between the White House and Silicon Valley, already strained by the president’s proposed ban on travel to the U.S. by people from six Muslim-majority countries, was shaken after the White House pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord. 

Elon Musk, CEO of both Tesla Inc. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., announced after the move he was quitting his role on councils that advise the president.  He had been among the most vocal and visible Silicon Valley contacts for the White House. 

A Tesla spokesman declined to comment. 

Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff, who tweeted his disappointment after the Paris decision, isn’t attending the Monday session because of a scheduling conflict that arose after the summit was rescheduled, a person familiar with the matter said. 

Others plan to attend despite the tensions.  “You have to take a look at the landscape and see where you can find some common ground,” said Linda Moore, chief executive of TechNet, a Washington-based lobbying group comprising U.S. technology companies and executives.  Those areas include tax reform and workforce development, she said.  

Aaron Levie, CEO of the digital-storage company Box Inc., said in an interview last month the risk of the administration making decisions without hearing directly from the tech industry is too great. 

“It’s not a given that the policy decisions are going to be aligned with the long-term trends that I think at least the tech industry is witnessing on the front lines,” he said. 

Mr. Levie, along with Cisco chairman John Chambers and venture capitalist John Doerr, met in April with White House officials and members of Congress to discuss tech issues including education and privacy.

“Everyone’s kind of got their own comfort level and their own desire of how much they want to engage,” said Ms. Moore. 

Mr. Cook, for example, spoke to the White House following both its immigration order and its exit from the Paris accord.  Apple didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

In March, Mr. Benioff attended a White House roundtable on workforce development with Mr. Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other CEOs, during which he suggested the aspirational goal of creating five million apprenticeships by 2020.  Earlier this week, Mr. Trump signed an executive order to reduce barriers to apprenticeships.

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