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How Donald Trump crippled US technology and science policy

Donald Trump
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Donald Trump

It took a mere seven days before Silicon Valley called off its truce with Donald Trump.

The first shot came in the form of a highly anticipated executive order, Trump's Jan. 27 directive prohibiting travelers and refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries from coming to the United States. Trump's initial ban would eventually be overturned, but his political salvo drew a swift and sharp rebuke from a tech industry that relies on foreign workers — and had been seething for months over his election.

Google's chief executive, Sundar Pichai, fretted in a note to staff about the "painful cost of this executive order on our colleagues." Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg opined publicly that he was "concerned." Apple CEO Tim Cook even said the iPhone maker wouldn't exist without immigration:Steve Jobs, he reminded, was an immigrant, too. Each of the companies sought to arm employees they believed to be at grave risk.

The groundswell of opposition quickly reached the aides at one of the White House's little-known nerve centers, the Office of Science and Technology Policy. An advisory arm to the president, the office began compiling the statements steadily flowing out of Silicon Valley, hoping to show Trump and his tightly knit circle that the nation's tech heavyweights had vehemently opposed the president's most consequential decision to date.

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The OSTP normally serves as a liaison between the science and tech communities and their government regulators in Washington. Under Trump, however, aides who tried to provide the new president with insight on immigration say they couldn't get their message through to the Oval Office.

One White House source, who described OSTP this week as "disempowered," said they had no idea if anyone in the new president's inner circle ever saw their work — and, as a result, perhaps did not appreciate the tech backlash to come.

Ten weeks into his nascent administration, Trump's Office of Science and Technology Policy isn't much of an office at all. As Trump forges ahead with his controversial economic agenda, he's done so without the support of the White House's army of engineers and researchers, who are best equipped to assess what his cuts mean for the future of the United States.

There's still no leader at OSTP, a job that can double as the chief science adviser to the president. That means Trump currently has no immediate expert on hand whose entire remit is the future of the environment, the effects of climate change and the direction of research in key areas, like HIV and cancer cures. The other leadership jobs within OSTP — overseeing issues like energy policy, innovation and more — similarly remain unfilled. And the few who remained weren't consulted as Trump took his first steps in those fields, including the creation of the budget for 2018 that cut significant chunks from federal research agencies, according to eight current and former White House sources.

The office is a critical feature of any administration. Under President Barack Obama, OSTP boasted a chief technology officer who personally had about 20 aides focused on issues like net neutrality, artificial intelligence and self-driving cars. (That includes Megan Smith, who was married to and is now separated from Recode co-founder Kara Swisher. Smith was not interviewed for this story.) As of Friday, however, only one aide there remained: Michael Kratsios, an acolyte of Peter Thiel, who entered government with no tech experience. His closest complement in the West Wing? Reed Cordish, who similarly lacks a technical pedigree — but does know Trump's daughter, Ivanka.

In Obama's White House, the OTSP spearheaded his administration's most far-fetched or future-focused initiatives, from studying the effects of artificial intelligence to facilitating the private sector's efforts to map brains and improve drinking water. It helped chart the government's course on research and development. And when crises arose — including the resurgence of Ebola, which threatened in 2015 to encroach deep into the United States — it was the hidden hand of the OSTP that sought to shape how the lumbering, sprawling U.S. bureaucracy focused its dollars in response.

Asked about those darkened offices and positions, a spokeswoman for Trump stressed Thursday he had candidates for OSTP in mind — but didn't name anyone, or allow anyone at the White House to be interviewed for this story.

"The office is staffed by scientists and engineers with years of experience, close working relationships throughout the Federal departments and agencies, and deep connections to the broader science and technology community," she said.

It's Trump's Washington, of course. He has flexibility to name candidates for the positions he chooses. And he campaigned on the notion that he would reduce the footprint of government, not expand it. But his tepid embrace of science and technology is all the more striking, given OSTP's roots as one of the only elements of the White House that Congress actually wrote into law. Lawmakers established the OSTP in the 1970s, after another Republican president, Richard Nixon, vehemently swore against tapping a science adviser. Turns out, Nixon didn't much like academics.

"There are many policy issues that come up across the spectrum ... where technical expertise and connections to the tech community are important," said Ed Felten, a top academic at Princeton University who served under Obama as a deputy chief technology officer.

That's why I asked Felten during an interview this month whether his former office — and its quiet struggles — should matter to Americans. "If OSTP is not well staffed," he told me, "it will be difficult to make policy well in the areas where science matters."

The anti-tech president

Trump does not use a computer. He thinks they have "complicated lives very greatly," he said last December. (He might not be wrong.) "I'm not an email person," Trump remarked earlier in July, an admission that came amid his attacks on his Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton, for using private communications while leading the State Department.

When asked in 2015 about the threat of online extremism and its antagonists, like the Islamic State, then-candidate Trump said he'd recruit Bill Gates to "close that internet up." Trump, however, is a devout creature of the web, an unrivaled master of Twitter, whose colorful 140-character exclamations helped him win the highest office in the United States.

Some in liberal-leaning Silicon Valley consequently derided Trump in 2016 as a Luddite unfit for public office in an age when questions about self-driving cars and cancer cures no longer seem the distant stuff of science fiction. To the policy wonks of Washington, Trump's greatest sin wasn't just his abrogation of technology — many of his voters shared his digital reluctance anyway. Rather, it was Trump's absent science or technology agenda and his missing complement of aides advising him on the issues.

Trump's apostasies may partly explain why he hasn't been able to fill the ranks of the OTSP — unlike Obama, who in the early days of his 2008 campaign labored to pay homage to the Valley, complete with a visit to Google headquarters. That's how Obama, mere days after his election, could pluck from a deep bench of experts for ideas and confidantes.

His first chief technology officer, Aneesh Chopra, had helped during the 2008 campaign. His first chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Julius Genachowski, had been a law school classmate as well as an innovation adviser and prolific fundraiser. And Obama's first director of the White House's venerated nerd hub, Dr. John Holdren, helped Obama prep to enter the White House after Election Day.

But Trump entered the White House with no command of science and tech policy issues. He had only a loose web of ideas, a series of scattershot meetings and public statements from which Washington types struggled to derive meaning. A private huddle last summer with leaders in the anti-vaccine movement, for example, generated early fears that Trump might have shared their beliefs. (It remains unclear.) His comments on the campaign trail that climate change was a hoax appeared at the time to presage big cuts to science, energy and environment programs. (It happened.)

It wasn't until the summer that he began to count on the support of Thiel, the controversial, contrarian Valley venture capitalist who helped birth PayPal and still serves on Facebook's board of directors. But even Thiel, who visited the nation's capital in October to discuss his rationale for supporting Trump's ascent, could only point to the GOP candidate's propensity for political disruption as his greatest asset to the tech industry and the country at large — not any actual positions on science and technology that Trump may have publicly or privately held.

"He points even beyond the remaking of one party to a new American politics that overcomes denial, rejects bubble thinking and reckons with reality," Thiel instead told reporters gathered at the National Press Club.

In a blitz to recover lost ground, Trump's aides invited lobbying groups for companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google to private meetings in Washington beginning in 2016, steps from Capitol Hill, to solicit their thoughts on what he should tackle first, sources told me at the time. Privately, they had no idea who Trump would tap on science and technology — or what he would do on the issues that mattered the most to their companies. After all, they had spent months preparing for a Clinton presidency anyway.

For his part, Thiel soon assumed a formal role with the team that helped Trump transition into government, becoming the only prominent member of the newly elected president's organizing effort who had any knowledge of Silicon Valley, its issues and the myriad industries it touches. Thiel, of course, helped organize the so-called "tech summit" at Trump Tower last December, a bid to mend fences between Trump and the very companies he derided at times on the campaign trail. He and his aides also set about finding, recruiting and vetting candidates for some of the government's top tech gigs.

For all their work, though, the Trump administration's most resonant contribution might have come in the form of a gaffe from Trump's new secretary of the Treasury Department, Steve Mnuchin, who stunned Valley types and labor experts alike when he said in March that AI was more than 50 years on the horizon — an issue, he continued, that was not "even on our radar screen."

But what has Trump accomplished so far in tech policy? By the end of the month, Congress passed a measure that wiped online privacy rules from federal law. Unnamed White House aides — in a formal, public statement issued Tuesday articulating the administration's views — recommended Trump sign the bill.

Who will run the OSTP?

Meanwhile, there's still no director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Under federal law, Trump has some flexibility in how he structures his own White House. He can decide, for example, to shed key positions in science, medicine and energy under OSTP's umbrella, as his priorities evolve. Many of the White House sources who spoke with me on the condition of background for this story said they believed he would do just that — quietly kill many science jobs within his own administration. That has left its veterans unsettled. Cristin Dorgelo, the former chief of staff there under Obama, stressed in an interview this month she wishes "the current administration keeps the same science" focus as her former boss.

By the time Trump took the oath of office, roughly 50 staffers — less than half of what it was under Obama — remained at the White House's technical nerve center. In the early days of the administration, some aides to the outgoing Obama White House's chief technology officer, Smith, even offered to stick around until March. But the few who stayed quickly opted to leave, feeling flustered and distrusted by Trump's inner circle, which had spent months casting public doubt on the integrity of any government employees who served during the Obama administration.

The only remaining employee is one of Thiel's deputies — Kratsios, a former chief of staff at Thiel Capital.

A finance type by background, Kratsios had been toiling silently to aid Trump, who hadn't yet taken office, from the new president's unofficial New York City hub at Trump Tower. He first surfaced at the White House in January without a formal title in hand, sources said, before becoming deputy chief technology officer.

Except, Kratsios has little or no direct knowledge of key issues like net neutrality, cyber security and artificial intelligence, multiple current and former aides said in interviews.

A politics graduate from Princeton, Kratsios appears to have at least some access to the decision makers in Trump's inner circle. (He knew and supported, for example, the effort to show Trump evidence that his immigration order had riled the tech set, sources say.) Sources described Kratsios positively as affable and helpful and motivated, and many believe his ambition and connections through Thiel in Silicon Valley will eventually serve Trump greatly.

But many former White House aides and observers insisted they remain leaderless, with almost no connection to Trump — a distance they felt most acutely as the president prepared his first budget.

After taking office, the president and his team raced to produce their plan for funding the government in 2018, a document that hoped to give life to the president's campaign promises, including Trump's proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In planning it, White House officials borrowed heavily from the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation. For months, experts at the organization had quietly served on the teams advising Trump on how to staff his future government, and the president's budget ultimately included many of the spending cuts that Heritage historically has championed. Among them: Almost $6 billion in cuts at the National Institutes of Health.

Previously, the Heritage Foundation's political arm, Heritage Action, had railed against a bipartisan bill in Congress to grow NIH. (It became law anyway.) The 2018 budget also sought to eliminate research dollars at the Energy Department, a longtime target of conservative critics, on top of programs at NASA and the country's weather hub, NOAA.

In doing so, however, Trump did not consult even a slimmed-down OSTP at all, multiple sources said. In other words, the cuts to NIH and the Energy Department's version of DARPA — that Pentagon money hub that has spawned so many startups, like the Thiel-backed data-giant, Palantir — came about largely without the input of anyone familiar with those fields. Some policy aides only got to see the budget after it had been published online, multiple sources said.

Few science experts like it. "I'm very disappointed in the president's first budget so far," said Kei Koizumi, who served as the Obama administration's research-and-development budget guru. He departed OSTP on Jan. 31.

"Although I understand where it's coming from, an overall desire to shrink domestic spending, it's going to have devastating effects on the U.S science and engineering enterprise, which is such a source of economic competitiveness, and our ability to make progress on solving health care, security and natural resource challenges," he said.

Some have tried to find solace in the president's other recent moves — like the newly announced Office of American Innovation, led by Jared Kushner, and the appointment of Matt Lira, an innovation policy expert who's helped senior Republicans in the U.S. Congress on digital issues.

Lira has his knocks, but Democrats laud his expertise. "The appointment of Matt Lira on the innovation side is an extremely positive sign that the president will build on the progress the Obama administration began on harnessing the power of the potential of the internet for the American economy," said Chopra, the first CTO under Obama, during an interview.

While the White House said it plans to consult with the Valley's best minds, however, their involvement might not be as regular as administration officials first suggested.

After the initial story about their participation appeared in the Washington Post, a spokeswoman for Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, names as of Trump's tech confidantes, told Recode he "doesn't have a formal role in the Trump Administration but offers his thoughts and ideas when they are sought on topics on which he can be helpful." Apple declined to comment.

Other senior leaders in the Trump administration also lack technical or policy expertise. That includes Reed Cordish, named the assistant to the president for intragovernmental and technology initiatives.

Cordish's portfolio includes a mandate to rethink the way government spends money buying tech services and systems. But Cordish has never worked in that world. In fact, he arrived from the fields of real estate and hospitality, and met Trump through his father, who had hosted a fundraiser for the soon-to-be president. His father once asked Trump's daughter, Ivanka, to help set his son up on a date.

Follow the money

Already, the Trump administration is pivoting to its next major economic priority — Infrastructure reform — and that's where the stakes could get higher for technology and science spending.

Publicly, Trump has promised to spend "big" on a package to upgrade the guts of the United States, like its roads and airports and bridges. Yet such a measure could also include major upgrades to U.S. cities, for example, to create smart roads for self-driving cars. It could feature critical investments in high-speed broadband internet to ensure better connectivity in the country's hardest-to-reach rural areas. It could seek to put aside new dollars for advanced manufacturing, or help fund research in artificial intelligence. It could provide a big boost for the most audacious ideas, like moonshots to cure cancer, or inject new life into the fodder of contemporary tech-news fiction, like underground tunnels and magnet-powered hyperloops, as Elon Musk hypes so often. (At least he stays in touch with the Trump White House.)

An infrastructure bill could be "big," in other words, not only in its cost but also in its ambition. But without experts in these far-reaching, future-focused fields, the Trump administration currently lacks the staff to advocate such ideas and figure out how to transform them into reality, many sources said. And the few who remain at OSTP already have struggled to break into Trump's inner circle, multiple White House sources said.

"I am worried any time science and technology expertise are not at the table when decisions are made," said Koizumi, the Obama budget veteran. "But I don't know what to do about that. I can't tell the administration to stop until you have people on board, because I also know decisions get made anyway — because they have to get made — even in the absence of scientific information [and] economic information."


By Tony Romm, Recode.net.

CNBC's parent NBCUniversal is an investor in Recode's parent Vox, and the companies have a content-sharing arrangement.

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