How Elon Musk is working to roll back Trump's temporary travel ban

As protests and legal battles continue over Trump's temporary travel ban, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk contends that negotiation is the way forward.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Donald Trump talks with Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, center, and White House chief strategist Steve Bannon during a meeting with business leaders in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington on Friday.

As the legal battle over Donald Trump’s controversial travel ban rages, Elon Musk sees another approach to ending the temporary ban bearing fruit.

On Friday, the Tesla and SpaceX CEO attended a meeting of President Trump’s council of business advisers - a panel that includes the chief executives of corporations including General Motors, Walmart, and JP Morgan Chase, as well as business leaders from Silicon Valley. Near the top of the agenda for many CEOs was the travel ban, brought into force last week by executive order. The temporary ban on citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries is bad for their bottom line, they say.

But as public criticism has led several of the CEOs to question working with Mr. Trump, Mr. Musk has been outspoken about the need to engage with the president in order to have an influence - an approach that Musk suggested may have been vindicated on Friday.

“There has already been and there will be progress on this matter,” he tweeted, expressing optimism that it would soon be resolved.

Musk is far from alone in opposing the travel ban: business leaders have been outspoken about the impact of the ban on their bottom line, while rights groups have objected to what they see as religious discrimination. 

Trump’s travel ban has created waves of protest and legal challenges from across the country. The attorneys general of Massachusetts, New York, and Hawaii took the government to court, and donations poured in for similar challenges by the American Civil Liberties Union. Meanwhile, social media galvanized consumers to vote with their wallets: the campaign #DeleteUber condemned Uber CEO Travis Kalanick for letting Uber continue to operate during a protest organized by New York taxi drivers, and ultimately drove him to resign his position on Trump’s council of business advisers on Thursday. 

These challenges are seen as ways for states and individuals to push back against the policy, in the hopes of forcing the Trump administration to roll it back. That’s a goal Musk shares: the tech industry has been hit hard by the ban, which affected 76 Microsoft employees, and 187 or more at Google, according to internal memos. In a competitive environment, the ban has also made it harder to recruit top international talent.

But Musk argues that he can have more influence by maintaining dialogue with the president than by cutting ties.

“I understand the perspective of those who object to my attending this meeting, but I believe at this time that engaging on critical issues will on balance serve the greater good,” Musk tweeted on Thursday evening.

Experts suggest that Musk’s “in-the-room” approach may have some merit. This is not an administration that is receptive to criticism from outside, they say - at least not yet.

“Based on everything we’ve seen of this administration … [protest] will be seen in a very critical light and taken very personally,” Dana R. Fisher, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland who carried out fieldwork during the Women’s March on Washington, told The Christian Science Monitor on Friday.

Getting beyond the courtroom may be particularly important. Trump sees himself primarily as a businessman, observers say - and he likes to negotiate. But in a win-lose court setting, he may feel compelled to win, particularly given the high-profile nature of the travel ban.

"The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!" he tweeted on Saturday, in response to a ruling by a federal judge in Seattle that put a temporary halt on the executive order.

But forging a personal relationship with Trump may allow Musk, and others on the council, to discuss the immigration ban in a more constructive way than legal challenges. Its impact on economic growth may be of particular interest to Trump, who has pledged to grow the economy.

Musk hinted at the value of this personal relationship in a response to one tweet on Friday, saying, ““Green cards & dual citizens already ok. Work & spousal visas not yet, but hopefully soon. This is separate from judicial action.”

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