Their faces were grim. Their voices halting. They went around the table, one by one, and introduced themselves.
“I’m Safra Catz, I’m CEO of Oracle. I’m actually privileged and honored to even be here, and we are looking forward to helping you, and your administration.”
“Ginni Rometty, the CEO of IBM, and also great to be here to work on that [inaudible] agenda.”
“Eric Schmidt, Alphabet/Google, and completely agree with what’s been said.”
“Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com. I’m super excited about the possibility that this could be the innovations administration.”
If it was genuine, it didn’t seem that way. Not that it mattered. Here sat President-elect Donald Trump, barely concealing his glee in assembling on relatively short notice 13 of the technology industry’s most powerful executives, among them Apple CEO Tim Cook, Alphabet CEO Larry Page, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. In the go-go 1980s, when Trump transformed from a boisterous real estate scion into a media phenomenon, the author Tom Wolfe declared Wall Street traders “Masters of the Universe” for their sudden power over the global economy. One look around the room reveals a generation of Masters for the 21st century. Their companies control the information that we see, the devices that we use, the stores from which we buy. Their companies are worth a collective $3.1 trillion. They rule the addictions to which our attention succumbs.
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Except in this room, high in gilded Trump Tower on New York City’s Fifth Avenue. Here, Donald Trump controls the agenda. One glance at a photograph from the meeting reveals that today’s Masters have entered another dimension.
“I’m here to help you folks do well,” Trump said in his introductory remarks. “And you’re doing well right now and I’m honored by the bounce. They’re all talking about the bounce, so right now everybody in this room has to like me at least a little bit.”
Their telltale faces demonstrate that Trump, in a rare moment, is speaking factually. The power dynamic between the President-elect and these captains of industry will not change when Obama formally transfers the powers of the presidency to Trump. They have always had to concern themselves with the Leader of the Free World. But under Trump, the alignment of the group’s interests may shift dramatically. Hanging in the balance: executive independence, shareholder value, and the next four years at minimum.
It doesn’t help that so many of them actively aligned themselves with Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, during the presidential campaign. Cook was on her shortlist for vice president and hosted a fundraiser for the candidate. Sandberg has long been a prominent Democratic fundraiser. Page’s colleague Ruth Porat, Alphabet’s chief financial officer, held a dinner at her home to raise money for Clinton. Musk’s cousin Lyndon Rive, the CEO of SolarCity, did, too.
Little will change after this meeting; it was primarily for show. Trump sought to display his new power while the executives aimed to demonstrate that they remained engaged with the most powerful executive in the world. They can be comforted by the fact that Trump is, at his heart, a pragmatist. (Even if his end game is often focused on burnishing his own reputation.) They can be unsettled by the fact that he remains unpredictable.
Silicon Valley has long been criticized for operating in a bubble of gleeful ignorance. On Wednesday, the President-elect showed just how easy it is to pop.