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A Tech Summit in Aspen Offers an Escape From Geopolitical Woes

Eric Newcomer
 

I spent much of this week in a parallel universe where the world isn’t melting down and the business of technology can proceed as usual. While President Donald Trump canoodled with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, Silicon Valley executives and their financial backers shuttled to Aspen, Colorado, for a meeting of the minds. Trump’s pro-Putin statements—which even unsettled Fox News this week and resulted in a televised correction by the president—hardly created a ripple among tech elites in Aspen.

It was business as usual. At Fortune magazine’s Brainstorm Tech conference, Uber Technologies Inc. Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi talked about getting metaphorically punched in the face by the latest employee unrest at Uber. Stripe Inc. Operating Chief Claire Johnson threw shade at the blockchain. DoorDash Inc.—which later announced it had hired away Uber’s top financial executive—talked about digitizing restaurants. The administration’s new tariffs came up in a conversation with Richard Liu, CEO of Chinese e-commerce company JD.com. He said he wasn’t too worried. Life goes on.

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The idyllic Aspen environs contrasting with the gloomy political crisis this week was made all the more stark by the smiling, unperturbed presence of U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. She talked about staying out of the way of the tech industry’s work on autonomous vehicles. Her message: The government had no interest in picking favorites or halting experimentation. It was an old-school Republican line.

But if Chao, a member of Trump’s cabinet, is fending off protests toward her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in Washington, she experienced only the most genteel line of questioning in Aspen. To his credit, Fortune Chief Content Officer Alan Murray seemed to know he had to at least try to vocalize the political moment—even if his audience seemed generally happy to ignore it.

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Toward the end of his interview, Murray teed up his Trump question. “I have to ask you—you and I have known each other for a long time,” he said. Chao interjected, “You’ve done very well. I’m proud of you.” Murray replied, “You have, too. You have decades of experience in Washington; you’ve seen different administrations come and go. You’ve worked for some of them in very distinguished positions.”

Then Murray detailed a litany of objections to the Trump White House. “We’ve never seen an administration like this one. In terms of the president’s loose relationship with the facts, in terms of his rejection of Republican orthodoxy on free trade, in terms of what we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks, his rejection of our allies and embrace of our enemies, in terms of the way he treats Congressional leadership of which your husband is a member, in terms of attitudes toward immigration, it’s a completely new experience for us and while none of the things are directly—“

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The largely liberal audience interrupted with light applause. “That’s a statement of fact,” Murray said. “None of these things are directly in your purview as secretary of transportation; you do have to operate in that milieu. Can you talk a little bit about how you deal with that?”

Chao replied, “Every president is different. They have their own particular styles,” explaining, “We are a very confrontational, a very argumentative, a very raucous society.” Murray tried to push back with a “never quite this raucous,” and Chao ducked any direct critique of her boss, instead discussing the changing media environment and then the importance of public service.

“I believe it is a privilege and an honor to serve our people and our country,” Chao said. “I also think the American people deserve a functioning government, and I’ve been in government before. This is my fourth administration.”

 “I won’t ask you to rank them,” Murray joked. “That would be unfair.”

That was about all the public reckoning over politics that I saw. A reporter at Axios followed up with a question about Trump’s infrastructure plans. The crowd moved on.

Later over drinks, once they’d caught up with Twitter, tech elites seemed to range from bemused to worried by the latest out of Helsinki. But with midterm elections three months away, Silicon Valley seemed mostly focused on their next quarter and whether their flight back might be delayed because of the forest fires.

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