Elon Musk: I'm Trump's voice of reason

Elon Musk at Trump Tower last year Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Elon Musk at Trump Tower last year

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk, a constant source of intrigue (to me at least), is busy positioning himself as the “voice of reason” that lies between Silicon Valley and the White House.

I’ve written at length about President Trump’s relationship with the technology heartland.

On the one side, you have the likes of Paypal founder and major investor Peter Thiel, who is now very much part of Trump’s inner circle.

On the other, you have tech bigwigs like Apple’s Tim Cook and Alphabet’s Larry Page, who were cooperative but mostly quiet when honouring the then President-Elect’s invite to meet him at Trump Tower last year.

Little has been said about that meeting since. The silence from most of Silicon Valley has been deafening - to the frustration of many here - but you get the sense that could all change if the companies are called upon to implement any policy decisions they consider unethical.

For instance, there’s a growing list of employees at tech firms who have noted they will refuse to work on a “database” of minorities, if asked. All hypothetical, of course.

Until such a thing happens it seems much of the tech elite are just keeping their heads down.

‘Move the needle'

But not Mr Musk.

In a series of tweets posted over the course of this week he has praised Trump’s Secretary of State pick Rex Tillerson.

"This may sound surprising coming from me,” he wrote in a tweet. “But I agree with The Economist. Rex Tillerson has the potential to be an excellent Sec of State.”

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Tesla is creating jobs in US manufacturing - though robots do plenty of the work too

His reasoning appeared to stem from remarks Mr Tillerson made in the past about supporting a carbon tax - something Mr Musk said was the only way to “move the needle” when it came to combating climate change. Unlike the President, who tweeted that he thought climate change was a hoax, Mr Tillerson has acknowledged the reality.

Before the election, Mr Musk described Mr Trump as “probably not the right guy” for the job of running the US. But since then he has accepted an invitation, along with Uber’s Travis Kalanick and 14 others, to join an advisory panel for the President.

That panel will "meet with the President frequently to share their specific experience and knowledge as the President implements his economic agenda”.

This backfired on Uber a little - protestors have gathered outside its San Francisco HQ over the past week - but as ever it’s hard to assess what tangible effect this has on the company (surge pricing was off the charts after the march on Saturday, for instance).

Feather in Trump’s cap

Short term PR hit aside, more important to Mr Musk’s bottom line would surely be what happens to the tax breaks his company, and its customers, currently enjoy.

The price of buying a Tesla car is lowered considerably thanks to measures put in by the Obama administration. And in Nevada, where Mr Musk is building his enormous Gigafactory, there are reports the company is enjoying more than a billion dollars worth of tax incentives.

Here’s where Mr Musk and Mr Trump will surely see eye-to-eye. Tesla is a company investing big in US manufacturing. The Gigafactory will eventually employ more than 6,000 people, Tesla has said. And that’s just the battery factory. The cars are being made in Fremont, California, where another 6,000 or so could soon work.

Mr Musk also presents President Trump with an irresistible feather in his Make America Great Again cap - the chance to re-ignite the space race.

SpaceX, Mr Musk’s space exploration company, has already taken up some contracts from Nasa, but there are presumably more tasks Mr Musk would like to get involved with. You get the feeling space travel might just appeal to Mr Trump’s sense of grandeur.

Tunnel vision

Gizmodo has more on this. In an “interview” published today, conducted via direct messages on Twitter, Mr Musk urged his tweets to be taken “as they are written”.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mr Musk (L) met President Trump again earlier this week

“The more voices of reason that the President hears, the better,” he is quoted as saying.

"Simply attacking him will achieve nothing. Are you aware of a single case where Trump bowed to protests or media attacks?

"Better that there are open channels of communication.”

On the new Secretary of State, he said: "Tillerson obviously did a competent job running Exxon, one of the largest companies in the world. In that role, he was obligated to advance the cause of Exxon and did.

"In the Sec of State role, he is obligated to advance the cause of the US and I suspect he probably will.”

Ever the multi-tasker, Mr Musk went on to tweet on Wednesday about his plans to dig a tunnel to avoid traffic in Los Angeles.

Where will this tunnel begin? “Across from my desk,” Mr Musk said.

How the rich live, eh?

Follow Dave Lee on Twitter @DaveLeeBBC and on Facebook

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