WASHINGTON – Those concerned about maintaining the Pentagon's technological edge will be keeping a close eye on a Wednesday meeting between President-elect Donald Trump and leaders from the tech sector.
The event, billed as a "technology summit" at Trump Tower in New York City, is expected to feature a number of top technology executives. The powwow has major implications for the Defense Department, which under Secretary of Defense Ash Carter went to great lengths in trying to build trust with a Silicon Valley culture that is in the last 15 years has become wary of the national security apparatus.
Reportedly among the invitees are top executives from Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Google, Oracle, Microsoft and IBM, the type of firms Carter has focused on courting during his time in the Pentagon. In doing so, he has attempted to overcome a major cultural gulf between Washington and the technology community, marred by Edward Snowden's NSA spying revelations and policy issues related to the government breaking into an encrypted iPhone used by the San Bernadino shooters last year.
That cultural divide appears likely to grow rather than shrink under the Trump administration. Many in the tech sector were opposed to Trump, whether in favor of Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton or due to Trump's views on issues such as immigration reform. And opposition to Trump remains firm in the tech community, with blogs such as ReCode and Gizmodo criticizing the tech leaders for meeting with the president-elect.
The reception may be frosty on the other end, as well. During the transition, vocal critics of Trump, including members of the national security establishment's "Never Trump" movement, have been iced out of top positions, with one Trump transition source saying that "There will be a sliding scale, where if you didn't endorse him, fine, [but] If you signed a letter that called Trump a xenophobic, racist, fascist, like so many people did, you're not going to get a job." Meanwhile, a Forbes report cited one Trump-affiliated source saying the meeting would be the president-elect's way of "asserting dominance" over the tech sector.
The tenor of the meeting will likely set the standard for how the commercial technology sector deals with the Trump administration, which means it will be watched closely by analysts such as Michael Hoffman of Tandem National Security Innovations, who has concerns about whether tech companies will be as eager to work with Trump as they were with the Obama administration.
"There is clearly consternation within those communities about working with the administration that they didn’t see with Obama," Hoffman said. "That was a draw -- working with Obama, who was very popular in those communities. … Are they going to be able to recruit in the same way? I don’t know. I think that’s a really big question."
A key group to monitor are the individuals who make up the Defense Innovation Board (DIB), a panel assembled to advise the secretary on how the department can improve its processes.
Made up of eye-catching names like Google head Eric Schmidt and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the board has already made an impact on Carter’s thinking, with the secretary backing their suggestion of creating a chief innovation officer and other, smaller recommendations.
But like the tech sector writ large, the majority of DIB members opposed to the candidacy of Donald Trump, raising questions of how their advice may be received under the new administration.
To be clear, the board's charter means it is guaranteed to last into 2018. But the group reports directly to the next secretary of defense, presumably Ret. Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, a man put forth by a very different political team than that of President Obama.
Politically, the DIB members follow the tech sector in leaning left. According to campaign finance data going back to 1998, gathered by OpenSecrets.org and analyzed by Defense News, panel members donated almost $2.4 million to Democratic candidates and political action committees (PACs), compared to just over $236,000 to GOP causes.
Four of the board members gave exclusively to Democrats, while there were no board members who donated exclusively to Republicans. Roughly 97 percent of donations from the DIB to GOP causes came from Eric Schmidt and Milo Medin, both associated with Google. While leaning right, both men also donated significant funds to Democrats.
By far the biggest donor in the group is Reid Hoffman, a co-founder of LinkedIn, who donated more than $2.5 million to political causes. Of that amount, $1 million went to the nonpartisan Mayday PAC, an effort to crowdsource a PAC that will elect candidates favoring campaign finance reforms. Another $1.54 million went to Democratic causes.
Rocky Relationship Ahead?
Money aside, some of the Pentagon board's members have been outspoken Trump critics -- and the president-elect has in the past shown a long memory for such insults. .
Astrophysicist and television personality Neil deGrasse Tyson is the most famous of the board members, and his inclusion on the board garnered attention outside the normal defense circles. Appearing on the The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, he said the election means "I think we have a four-year mission now…I think what we need to do, let us together, make America smart again."
On Nov. 18, he tweeted out "When I meet President Trump, I may first grab his crotch -- to get his attention -- then discuss Science with him," a reference to the video that surfaced of Trump talking about sexually assaulting women. He later deleted that tweet.
Hoffman, too, has been outspoken on Twitter, saying Trump’s comments about women make him "unfit to be president" and writing a number of posts on his Medium blogcriticizing the then-candidate. Cass Sunstein, a law professor who served as "regulatory czar" for part of the Obama administration, is another board member who has written criticallyabout Trump, and Schmidt reportedly helpedthe Clinton campaign early on with its technology strategy.
But perhaps no one on the board will be as much in the crosshairs as Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the owner of the Washington Post.
Bezos spent much of the last year being directly threatened by the president-elect, who at one point told an audiencethat "Believe me, if I become president, oh do they have problems, they are going to have such problems." The fight between Bezos and Trump, which appeared rooted in the Post’s ongoing investigative work into Trump’s finances, was public enough that shares of Amazon tumbled almost 10 percent in the days following Election Day.
Notably, Bezos is among those who was invited to Trump Tower for the tech summit, and is expected to attend.
Ben FitzGerald of the Center for a new American Security warned the incoming defense team against focusing on "optics and party affiliation," given the heavy Democratic lean for Silicon Valley writ large.
"There is so much talent on that board, not just to provide good advice to the secretary but also to advocate within their networks and broader communities for collaboration across those divides," FitzGerald noted.
Hoffman argued that "a lot of those folks from the DIB were drawn to that because of the personal relationship Ash Carter had with them," and that the next secretary may lack the same ability to reach out to the tech community.
"You have a lot of egos in the room. To Carter’s credit he was able to recruit these guys to cooperate with the DOD and made it an attractive opportunity to guys who are very busy and whose time is very worthwhile," he said. "These guys are businessmen, so they know they need to work with Trump, but the DIB [itself] is a big question mark."
The good news, for those that want the advisory panel to succeed, is that several members indicated they plan to stick around under the Trump administration.
Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, said, "It’s an important mission, and innovation is not partisan—I’ll be honored to continue serving on this committee." Professor Richard Murray of the California Institute of Technology also said he would continue on. Bezos also confirmed through a spokesman that he intends to stay on the board, and there are indications from the Pentagon that other members have signaled they will remain with the group.
FitzGerald points out one potential solution, if the next secretary wants to put his own imprint on the DIB: simply finding GOP-leaning members to add to it.
"There would be potential for a new secretary of defense to keep the current members and add additional perspective from Republicans, rather than just either purging the board or doing away with the entire concept," he said.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.