WASHINGTON – The majority of the Defense Innovation Board confirmed Monday an intention to stay and assist the Department of Defense under President-elect Donald Trump, despite public comments from members critical of the incoming commander-in-chief.
Formed earlier this year by outgoing Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, the Defense Innovation Board is supposed to make suggestions on how to improve the Pentagon's use of technology, gathering input from leaders of the commercial tech sector. It is chaired by Alphabet head Eric Schmidt, who at a public event Monday said the board will continue with its work into the future.
"I have indicated I would be very happy to serve under [the new administration], and I believe all, or everyone but maybe one, will continue" to serve, Schmidt said, with other members present nodding along.
Asked to clarify that comment, Schmidt demurred, saying, "I'm just assuming one or two might choose [to leave] but I don't know. My current expectation is everyone would stay on. No one has told me they are leaving, but it's also the case no one has been asked by the new administration to stay because the new administration doesn't exist yet."
Although these represent the first public comments from the board as a whole, several members had confirmed to Defense News in December they intended to continue their work despite the change of administration.
That was no guarantee, as the board is made up primarily of individuals with ties to Silicon Valley – a culture which was drawn to working with the popular Obama administration, and which largely backed Trump’s opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Campaign finance data going back to 1998, gathered by OpenSecrets.org and analyzed by Defense News, showed Defense Innovation Board members donated almost $2.4 million to Democratic candidates and political action committees (PACs), compared to just over $236,000 to GOP causes. And several members, most vocally astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, have criticized Trump.
Both Hoffman and Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder who was personally attacked a number of times by Trump on the campaign trail, were not at today’s meeting. Tyson, for his part, seemed to draw a line between serving a president and serving the country.
"All the carefully selected quotes that you find in these halls, they pledge allegiance to the constitution. And I have yet to see a quote that talks about the president. So I think there is a higher mission statement that we all live by here," Tyson said.
The question remains if any of the board members will be asked to leave by the incoming administration. The board has not yet met with either members of the Trump transition team or James Mattis, the retired Marine general who is Trump’s nominee for secretary of defense.
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.