Musk Considers Ending His Tortured Dance With Trump

The builder of rockets and electric cars finds a goal that may be unattainable, warning he’ll drop advisory roles if the U.S. exits the Paris accord.

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CEO Letter Urges Trump to Keep U.S. in Paris Accord

Elon Musk has vowed to leave President Donald Trump’s advisory councils if the president pulls America out of the landmark Paris climate accord. To many of Musk’s fans, it’s about time. 

“Don’t know which way Paris will go, but I’ve done all I can” to convince Trump to stick with U.S. commitments made under his predecessor, Barack Obama, Musk wrote Wednesday in a post on Twitter. Asked what he’ll do if Trump decides to leave, the chief executive said he “will have no choice but to depart councils.”

America’s clean-energy icon—the founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX—angered many of his supporters earlier this year when he started meeting with Trump and joined his councils on business and manufacturing. Billboards sprang up in California urging Musk to “Dump Trump.” Some customers even canceled their $1,000 reservations for Tesla’s upcoming Model 3 electric car and posted their refunds on Twitter.

Musk, 45, continued to advise Trump even as Uber Technologies Inc. CEO Travis Kalanick succumbed to pressure to step down from similar White House roles. Musk insisted that the advisory councils were his chance to ensure the Republican president was hearing from people who take the threat climate change seriously. 

Now, as Trump nears a final decision on the Paris climate agreement, and appears to be leaning toward the exit, Musk seems to have reached the end of his patience. The accord was decades in the making, involving more than 200 nations that represent almost the entirety of humanity. The only nations that haven’t signed on are Nicaragua and Syria. 

Other CEOs are mounting a last-minute push aimed at persuading Trump to stay. Tim Cook placed a call to the White House on Tuesday, according to a person familiar with the move. Twenty-five companies, including Intel and Microsoft, have signed on to a letter set to run as a full-page advertisement in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal on Thursday. A television ad ran Wednesday showed CEOs of top U.S. companies backing the pact. 

QuickTake Q&A: Elon Musk

"The president has a lot of people who he gets a lot of input from," White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in response to a question about Musk. "Let's wait and see what the president's decision is." 

Before the November election, Musk tepidly criticized Trump, saying he was “probably not the right guy” for running the country. In December, he joined a council of 14 CEOs including Walt Disney Co., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and Uber. 

While other CEOs took heat for working with Trump, especially after his controversial executive order restricting immigrants and refugees from predominantly Muslim nations, Musk found himself in a uniquely vulnerable position. His brand loyalty—from customers, employees, investors—is built upon a vision for the future of sustainable energy combining solar power, home batteries, and electric cars. He sometimes found himself on the defensive with his followers.

Tesla doesn’t advertise its products in traditional ways, instead relying almost entirely on word of mouth and elaborate product launches to create buzz. Musk begins each new product launch event with a presentation about climate change, specifically where the current science tells us the world is headed without massive intervention, and shows how each new product works to mitigate greenhouse gas pollution. Tesla has built itself around finding solutions to the singular problem of global climate change. 

If Trump pulls out of the climate deal, it could be Musk’s easiest way out of what has been a tortured public relationship from the start. If Trump decides to stay, after sowing months of doubt about a pact that relies on the trust of nations to enforce non-binding pledges, what then for Musk? 

For more on the tech industry's relationship with the Trump administration, check out the Decrypted  podcast:

 

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