Step down. Stand up

An open letter to Tesla CEO Elon Musk

Elon Musk (right) with chief strategist Steve Bannon at a White House meeting this month.

Dear Mr. Musk,
As a second-generation immigrant, like you, I want to thank you for signing the amicus brief, along with 126 other tech industry leaders, which helped put a stop to President Trump’s executive order banning members of a specific religion from entering our country.

Now, I would respectfully ask you to take one more step: reconsider your decision to stay on the president’s Business Advisory Council. You once described candidate Donald Trump as “not the man for the job,” one who “doesn’t seem to have the sort of character that reflects well on the United States.”

How right you have been proven.

Your reasons for staying on the council, as you have stated, include “trying to provide advice that helps take things in a more positive direction.” Specifically on climate change, you wrote in a recent tweet, that at one council meeting, “I again raised climate. I believe this is doing good, so will remain on council & keep at it. Doing otherwise would be wrong.”

I guess we’ll see how that plays out as more executive orders roll out and his choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency, a climate science denier, (assuming he’s confirmed) goes about executing the president’s campaign pledge to get rid of the agency; except, in Trump’s words, for “sav[ing] a little bit.” We’ll see how that squares with the goal you have set for your company: “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy and to help make humanity a multi-planet civilization of which will be the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs and a more inspiring future for all.”

Forgive me, Mr. Musk, for having doubts. As do others, like Union Square Ventures co-founder Fred Wilson who cautions “CEOs that have chosen to get involved with Trump in an advisory way: when you lie down with the dog, you’re going to come up with fleas.” Others, noting that you also endorsed Exxon’s CEO for Secretary of State, have suspected more pecuniary motives. According to The Washington Post “this relationship could end up enriching Musk and his shareholders … Musk’s vision of putting humans on other planets, especially Mars, and redefining ground transportation through cars that are autonomous and free of fossil fuels will depend on the government’s support.” A Morgan Stanley analyst “expects shares of Tesla Motors Inc. to surge 30 percent this year — and one of the reasons is the relationship between CEO Elon Musk and President-elect Donald Trump,” reported BizNews.com, an online trade publication based in your country of origin, South Africa.

“Elon Musk has an important line of communication to Donald Trump through his role as a strategic adviser to the President-elect. While we cannot explicitly apply a monetary value to this relationship, we believe this level of coordination with the new administration could actually evolve into greater strategic value than with the prior administration,” the analyst’s note reads.

In a May 2015 report, the Los Angeles Times estimated your companies had by then hauled in $4.9 billion in government subsidies, ranging from tax breaks for Tesla cars and SolarCity’s solar panels, to military contracts to send U.S. Air Force satellites into space. The Verge went so far last week to suggest that since Trump was elected, you have “been behaving an awful lot like a crony capitalist.” And it may be affecting your company’s bottom line, according to Elektrek.co, a trade publication. Of the 400,000 Model 3 reservation holders who put down a $1,000 deposit to get in line when the less expensive Model 3 ramps up production this year, some “are now claiming that they are canceling their pre-orders.”

The Verge, in a piece published last week, concludes with what you might regard as a challenge, and others a warning.

It’s hard to say how this bargain ends. The threat to Tesla and SpaceX will remain constant, while the cost of aligning with Trump will only grow. Musk’s bet may still pay off like he wants, with greater influence and better policy, but it seems less likely by the day. Instead, he may join Chris Christie and Ted Cruz as would-be advisors who lost their dignity trying to stay in Trump’s good graces. For a business hero like Musk, that would be a long way to fall.

I strongly urge you to reconsider your relationship with an administration that, at the end of the day, does not wish your company well. Rather stand with an earthbound civilization that is threatened by its actions.

Thank you.

Andrew S. Ross