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Trump's tech council moves 'full steam ahead' despite tension with Silicon Valley

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Jeff Bezos, president and chief executive officer of Amazon.com Inc., right, speaks as President Trump, left, and Satya Nadella, chief executive officer of Microsoft Corp., listen during the American Technology Council roundtable hosted at the White House on June 19. (Zach Gibson/Bloomberg)

President Trump signaled a willingness to forge a relationship with Silicon Valley in the weeks before assuming the presidency, and his administration has since sought input from the industry to advance its tech policy goals.

But though the broader tech community is aligned with the president on issues such as modernization of government IT systems and removing barriers to innovation, Silicon Valley has continued to split with the administration over several of Trump's policy decisions. Last month, tensions between the White House and the tech community reached a new low following the president's remarks on the violence in Charlottesville, Va.

Trump's early attempt to foster good will with the tech industry came in December, when the president convened a meeting with top executives from the industry at Trump Tower in New York City. Then, after the inauguration, the Trump administration said it would push a number of tech-related policy initiatives, including modernization of government IT systems and a boost in cybersecurity efforts.

Trump also issued an executive order at the end of April establishing the American Technology Council, which sought to transform and modernize the government's IT systems and its delivery of digital services, and seek input from the private sector on how best to accomplish those goals.

In June, top representatives from Silicon Valley gathered at the White House for the council's inaugural meeting.

But though the Trump administration has been working to reconcile its relationship with the tech community, Trump's recent policy decisions have put him squarely at odds with Silicon Valley.

It began in May, when he announced the U.S. would be withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement. Then, last month, a number of top Silicon Valley CEOs and executives condemned Trump's decision to ban transgender individuals from serving in the military "in any capacity."

The new policy, announced via a series of tweets, earned the ire of Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Apple CEO Tim Cook, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, among others.

But Trump's relationship with Silicon Valley reached a fever pitch this month after white supremacists clashed with counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va.

During remarks immediately following the Aug. 12 events in Charlottesville, Trump said "many, many sides" were to blame for the violence.

The president reinforced his statements during a press conference at Trump Tower three days later, when he said there were some "very, very fine people" involved in the violence in Charlottesville and, again, stated that "both sides" were to blame."

In the wake of the president's comments, two of his advisory councils disbanded after numerous CEOs resigned in protest. And tech CEOs who participated in the American Technology Council's inaugural meeting didn't hide their discontent with Trump's remarks.

Cook urged Americans to "stand against" the "terror of white supremacy," and Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, who resigned from Trump's Manufacturing Jobs Initiative, said the Trump administration needs to "set scoring political points aside and focus on what is best for the nation as a whole."

But despite the escalating tensions between the White House and tech community, the White House said the American Technology Council's work will go on as planned, as the panel has only government employees within its ranks.

"The council is full steam ahead on its work assisting the modernizing of government IT, which is primarily being done through internal government resources," a White House official told the Washington Examiner. "The council will continue to occasionally consult with the private sector on specific issue areas such as improving Cloud rollout, cyber security, and digital services for vets."

Part of the tech community's split from Trump on issues such as the Paris climate agreement and transgender ban can be attributed to a difference of values between "part of the coastal tech companies" and the president, said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Technology Association, a trade organization representing more than 2,000 consumer tech companies.

But that doesn't mean Trump shouldn't get credit for success he's had on improving the economy, the job market, and the stock market, Shapiro said, which are the "objective measures" past presidents have been judged by.

"In Trump's case, he's forced a discussion in America's boardrooms that hasn't occurred before," Shapiro told the Washington Examiner. "For 40 years, we've said, ‘Following the law is what you have to do.' And Trump has said, ‘I'm clearing out some of the underbrush for the law, but I want you to think about your ethical obligations and invest in this country.'

"Him doing that … he's gotten companies to invest in the U.S."

Shapiro said despite the pushback the president has received from the broader tech community, his policy agenda on tech issues closely aligns with that of the Consumer Technology Association.

"I was so impressed that their tech agenda and vision of the future under the American Technology Council is so consistent with our own; self-driving cars and robotics and drones and using tech to move the country forward," he said. "Our agendas are very much in sync on where we want to go in terms of specific technologies."

There are some tech policy issues Trump can address unilaterally, such as modernization of government IT systems. Others, such as an investment in infrastructure, will require assistance from Congress.

But Shapiro bucked the notion that any friction between Congress and the White House would steer issues that are largely bipartisan in nature off course.

"There are good things on the horizon," he said. "I don't think any members of Congress or President Trump is intentionally trying to hurt the U.S. I think members of Congress are going to do what's right for America."