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President Trump’s legacy: A love-hate relationship with tech that blew up in his face

President Trump’s legacy: A love-hate relationship with tech that blew up in his face


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Mandel Ngan/Getty Images
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President Donald J. Trump will leave the White House on Tuesday with a legacy of railing against the tech world despite relying on the reach of Facebook and Twitter to spread misinformation and inflame the public. It was a spat that ultimately led to his expulsion from those social media platforms. 

President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn in during his inauguration ceremony on Wednesday, putting an end to the Trump era, which was marked by bitter partisan fighting and a sowing of discord — much of it largely taking place on social media. The transition happens under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected roughly 24 million people and killed nearly 400,000 in the US and an assault on the US Capitol by right-wing extremists who stormed the building after a Trump speech. 

The violence in DC, which led to Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat blocking Trump from their platforms, capped off a volatile four-year stretch that was marked by his love-hate relationship with technology. With nearly 87 million followers on Twitter, the septuagenarian was a master of social media, often disrupting news cycles and upending presidential norms with sudden, often typo-prone tweets. Yet he constantly railed against the perceived slights from Twitter, Facebook and Google, which struggled to quell disinformation — some of it perpetuated by him. In the days after the election, a significant number of his tweets and Facebook posts were flagged by both companies as misinformation

The president’s use of his personal social media account — and especially his ability to rally followers through Twitter — played a key role in Trump’s surprise ascension from real estate magnate, whose businesses filed for bankruptcy six times, and star of the reality show The Apprentice to the Republican nominee for the country’s highest office. He stunned the nation by defeating Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, despite losing the popular vote by a margin of 2.9 million. Trump’s social media presence remained a key tool in his bid for reelection this year. 

The 2016 election, and questions about Russia’s influence on the results, raised concerns among lawmakers and voters about the negative impact of social media on society and our lives. Alongside this dynamic was an uneasy relationship between Trump, 74, and the tech industry, which fluctuated between photo ops with top tech executives and clashes over disagreements in principle. 

Trump and Big Tech

Trump’s early days as president featured overtures to the business community. He held numerous public and private meetings with technology executives including Apple CEO Tim Cook and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, as well as the leaders of the wireless carriers. In May 2017, he formed the American Technology Council to modernize how the US government operates and often touted his relationship with corporate America. 

But Trump butted heads with tech companies on numerous occasions. A month after the council was created, Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accord, a pact between nearly 200 countries to curb global warming. In response, tech giants such as Apple, Google and Microsoft, alongside a coalition of businesses and civic organizations, said they’d still respect the terms of the deal. Tesla CEO Elon Musk quit the council because of Trump’s move. (Biden has promised to rejoin the Paris accord on his first day in office in January.)

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Trump and Apple CEO Tim Cook meet in the Oval Office. 


Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead

Two months after that, Trump failed to call out neo-Nazis over protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, that led to the death of a woman and the injuring of 19 other people. That failure prompted several tech executives to walk away from presidential councils, including then-IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, who left the now-disbanded Strategy and Policy Forum, and then-Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, who resigned from a manufacturing council. 

The White House’s plans to end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which gave undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children protection from deportation, also drew the tech industry’s ire, as companies including Apple employed some of those DACA recipients. 

In 2018, tech executives denounced the treatment of families who illegally crossed the border, including US officials separating children from their parents. 

Trump has fired back. As president, he alleged without evidence that social networks were censoring conservative voices, something the companies have denied. And as part of that back and forth, he sought to curtail protections for the internet granted under a law known as Section 230, issuing an executive order to have it revised. It’s a push he made over the last several months as the election race heated up. 

Pro-US business

Trump has also championed deregulation, helping a number of industries, including internet service providers such as Verizon and Comcast. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, a Trump appointee, spearheaded the dismantling of net neutrality, a move that’s still undergoing a legal challenge

Trump’s aim to protect US businesses also led to his tussles with China over trade. He squashed a deal for Broadcom, then headquartered in Singapore, to buy US-based Qualcomm, because of concerns over the loss of 5G intellectual property. In May 2019, he banned Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from using any US technology, essentially cutting the company off from the key parts of Google’s Android operating system, because of worries that China could use Huawei phones and equipment as a way to spy on American individuals and businesses.

Qualcomm 5G MWC 2019

The White House squashed a deal for a foreign company to acquire Qualcomm, which owns many critical 5G patents. 


Corinne Reichert/CNET

The White House under Trump had also considered boosting support for 5G networks, and had at one point floated the idea of a nationalized 5G network. A raft of Republicans and the telecommunications and tech industries have criticized the notion as unrealistic, with deployments by the carriers already underway. 

In July, Trump issued an executive order requiring TikTok to sell itself to a US company or risk getting shut out of the market, again citing security concerns, over how much data the short-video app collected on US citizens. The move forced ByteDance, the app’s Chinese parent, to work out a deal with Oracle, which had Trump’s blessing. 

Trump and the coronavirus

Trump entered 2020 battling a hearing that led to his impeachment by the House of Representatives. The Senate later acquitted him of the charges.  

But his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a turbulent 2020 — which included nationwide protests over the treatment of the Black community, triggered by the killing of George Floyd; wildfires that ravaged the West Coast; and hurricanes and floods hitting the South; among many other crises — will make up a large part of his legacy. 

The coronavirus, in particular, devastated the US, forcing a shutdown of the economy in March and the loss of tens of millions of jobs. COVID-19 has infected 9.5 million people in the US, nearly a fifth of all cases around the world, even as other countries such as Singapore, New Zealand and South Korea have managed to contain the deadly virus’ spread. 

Trump, by his own admission to journalist Bob Woodward, downplayed the threat of the virus early on, saying in recorded interviews that he didn’t want to cause a panic. He repeatedly made the claim, in public, that the virus would “go away” in warmer months. After he pushed for states to reopen businesses, the country saw another spike in cases over the summer. A third wave has emerged in the last few weeks, with cases hitting more than 99,000 a day

Trump also faced criticism for his lackluster support of masks, despite the universal recommendation of medical professionals as to their effectiveness in halting the spread of the virus. That anti-science stance that was consistent with how he approached regulations during his presidency.

Trump first donned a mask publicly in July, four months after the pandemic appeared in the US. In September, Trump contradicted the recommendation of Robert Redfield, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that people should wear masks. When asked about Redfield’s comments, he said he hoped masks help and that they “probably do,” but that some people “feel that masks have problems.” His stance has encouraged many to dismiss the idea of wearing masks. 

At the first presidential debate, Trump mocked Biden’s frequent use of a face mask. 

Days later, Trump disclosed that he’d tested positive for COVID-19, throwing an already unpredictable election for another loop before its conclusion on Saturday. 

Capitol Clash

But while the coronavirus problem endured for months — and will continue to do so — the other stain on his legacy occurred in just hours after he instigated a mob of far-right extremists and QAnon supporters that overran police and stormed the US Capitol as Congress was certifying the results of the president election.

The incident had arguably been building for months, as Trump used social media to foment anger and chip away at the credibility of the elections, forcing social media to flag his posts both during and after the elections.

The violence in DC proved to be a turning point, with social media companies opting to ban him after weeks of flagging or hiding his posts. It also spurred several big companies, including those in the tech industry, to freeze campaign contributions. Some companies also targeted lawmakers who objected to the certification of the election results. Apple and Google also removed Parler, a conservative social media network popular with Trump supporters, from their app stores, and Amazon ceased hosting the service. 

While Trump has publicly denounced any violence, there remains concern of potential violence during inauguration day in all 50 state capitols and in DC, leading to national guard being called in various locations. 

Trump, meanwhile, is asking for a big send-off as he leaves the White House on Wednesday morning. He will not attend Biden’s inauguration ceremony. 

He won’t be able to tweet about it either. 



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