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President Trump’s legacy: Clashes with tech and a struggle against COVID-19

President Trump’s legacy: Clashes with tech and a struggle against COVID-19


Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

President Donald J. Trump will leave the White House with a legacy of railing against the tech world despite relying on the reach of platforms like Facebook and Twitter to spread misinformation and inflame the public. 

On Saturday multiple news outlets called the election for Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden, who captured 279 electoral votes, with both Pennsylvania and Nevada moving into the blue but with a few states still wrapping up their vote counting. Trump’s loss capped off a chaotic and unprecedented campaign that took place under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 9.8 million people and killed more than 237,000

Media outlets calling the race for Biden included CNNFoxThe New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, as well as ABCCBS and NBC. Trump has said he’ll challenge the results. 

Trump’s four years as president were marked by a love-hate relationship with technology. With nearly 87 million followers on Twitter, the septuagenarian is a master of social media, often disrupting news cycles and upending presidential norms with a sudden, often typo-prone tweet. 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 social media — especially the 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 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 alike about the negative impact of social media on society and our lives. Alongside this dynamic was an uneasy relationship between Trump and tech, which fluctuated between photo ops with tech executives and clashes over disagreements in principle. 

Trump and Big Tech

Trump held numerous public and private meetings with technology executives like Apple CEO Tim Cook and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, as well as with 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. 


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 like 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 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 tussle 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 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 country, forcing a shutdown of the economy in March and the loss of tens of millions of jobs. The coronavirus 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 virus’ spread. 

Trump, by his own admission to journalist Bob Woodward, downplayed the threat of the virus early on, saying he didn’t want to cause a panic. He repeatedly made the claim 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 during 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 — an 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. 

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