Uber CEO Leaves Trump’s Advisory Council Amid Controversy

  • Tesla’s Musk says he’ll still attend, along with GM’s CEO
  • #DeleteUber campaign put pressure on ride-hailing startup

Uber CEO to Step Down From Trump Advisory Council

Uber Technologies Inc. Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick is stepping down from President Donald Trump’s business advisory council after criticism from customers and drivers.

Kalanick’s participation on the council, along with more than a dozen other U.S. executives, prompted blow-back on social media after Trump’s controversial executive order on immigration. It snowballed into a #DeleteUber campaign that benefited rival Lyft Inc.

Uber’s CEO wrote in an e-mail to employees that he had spoken briefly Thursday with the president about his concerns with Trump’s ban of immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries. Kalanick, 40, told the president that he would no longer be involved with the advisory council, he wrote in the e-mail obtained by Bloomberg.

“Immigration and openness to refugees is an important part of our country’s success and quite honestly to Uber’s,” Kalanick wrote. “There are many ways we will continue to advocate for just change on immigration but staying on the council was going to get in the way of that. The executive order is hurting many people in communities all across America.”

Members of Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum include the CEOs of BlackRock Inc., Blackstone Group LPGeneral Motors Co., IBM, Tesla Inc. and Walt Disney Co. The group was created to provide the new president with guidance from a variety of industries on business and economic issues. But after Trump kicked off his first days in office with several dramatic and controversial policies, the companies have faced calls from customers and employees to disassociate from the administration.

“What’s striking is the kind of tumult and chaos that we’re observing in the aftermath of these executive orders,” said William Howell, an American politics professor at the University of Chicago. “I can’t think of a single clear historical analog for this kind of behavior and certainly not two weeks into a presidency.”

Kalanick’s departure from the council and public condemnation of Trump’s immigration order opens him up to a possible retaliatory attack from the president, said Howell. Trump’s next council meeting is planned for Friday. Disney CEO Bob Iger won’t be attending due to a previously scheduled board meeting. Tesla’s Elon Musk said he plans to be there, as does GM’s Mary Barra.

“Advisory councils simply provide advice and attending does not mean that I agree with actions by the Administration,” Musk wrote in a tweet Thursday. “I understand the perspective of those who object to my attending this meeting, but I believe at this time that engaging on critical issues will on balance serve the greater good.”

While Musk and others have faced resistance over their involvement on the council, criticism of Uber has been the loudest. Kalanick has long cultivated a combative reputation after years spent fighting with governments around the world. Customers and drivers were incensed not only over his role on Trump’s council, but some also said his initial response to the immigration ban -- outlined in a memo to staff last Saturday -- wasn’t sufficiently critical.

Kalanick also drew fire over his handling of a taxi protest of Trump’s immigration order last weekend in New York City. Uber shut off its surge pricing feature soon after the strike was due to end. The rationale was to avoid the appearance of seeking to profit from the disruption, but the move backfired. It left some with the impression that Uber was trying to break up the strike and spawned a social media movement aimed at encouraging customers to defect from Uber, using the hashtag #DeleteUber.

Lyft seized on its San Francisco rival’s missteps. The startup promised $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union over four years and put out a strong statement condemning Trump’s ban. Before the controversy, Lyft was ranked 54th on Apple’s App Store. By Jan. 30, it was seventh, surpassing Uber, according to research firm App Annie. Lyft’s ride-hailing app has since fallen below Uber’s.

At least 200,000 people deleted their Uber accounts this week, which is significantly more than average, said a person familiar with the matter. However, the number of new users exceeded deletions, the person said. Uber said the app has 40 million people using it each month globally.

The Independent Drivers Guild, a group funded in part by Uber, surveyed ride-hailing drivers early this week about whether they intended to switch apps in protest. About half said they would.

On Thursday, the guild applauded Kalanick’s decision to leave Trump’s advisory council. “This is an important show of solidarity with the immigrant drivers who helped build Uber,” Jim Conigliaro Jr., the group’s founder, wrote in an e-mailed statement. “We are heartened that Uber has listened to the drivers and the community on this important issue that is so integral to the promise of the American dream.”

Politics stirred discomfort within the walls of Uber’s headquarters as well. Thuan Pham, the company’s chief technology officer who came to the U.S. as a child refugee of Vietnam, wrote an e-mail to staff after Trump’s election comparing him to former Chinese leader Mao Zedong and U.S. President George W. Bush “and his wars.”

“For the next four years, I will not even utter the name of this deplorable person because I do not accept him as my leader,” Pham wrote in an e-mail first published by Business Insider. “I will instead do everything I can to help defeat him and his destructive agenda over the next few years.”

Uber faced pressure from its employees, based in predominantly liberal San Francisco, and drivers, many of whom are immigrants. However, Uber had a lot to gain from having a direct line into the White House. The company is pushing for friendly rules toward autonomous driving and maintaining drivers’ status as independent contractors not eligible for employment benefits. Uber will continue to serve on the Trump administration’s Transportation Department committee on automation, along with Lyft.

Kalanick had never spoken to Trump before their call today, said a person familiar with the matter. Uber’s CEO supported Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid and joked early in the campaign at a University of California, Los Angeles, event that he would move to China if Trump were elected. He still lives in San Francisco.

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