An odd couple — Musk and Trump — ignites a $2 million campaign
SAN FRANCISCO – Several weeks after the election, veteran tech investor Doug Derwin spotted pictures of two men he had strong opinions about — Tesla CEO Elon Musk and President Donald Trump.
Derwin admired Musk and had put a down payment on a new Model S. Yet pictures of the environmental evangelist with the president made him reconsider.
“How is it that Elon Musk is sitting here … staring at Trump in almost adoration?” Derwin said. “Shocking.”
Silicon Valley investor Douglas Derwin has launched a campaign asking Elon Musk to quit collaborating with President Donald Trump. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Derwin cancelled his Model S order. A few days later, he walked down the street and handed a $150,000 check — his Tesla money — to the ACLU.
Then, he really started to invest in the resistance.
Derwin launched a self-funded $2 million campaign to push Musk away from Trump. As tech workers joined protests and Bay Area companies fought Trump’s travel ban, Derwin funded flashing electronic billboards with the message, “Elon, Please Dump Trump.”
The campaign expanded into newspaper and television ads last week. Half of its budget is Derwin’s $1 million challenge to Musk to publicly renounce the president. The tech investor is ready to donate that amount to a charity Musk chooses — or else he will send it to another organization fighting Trump policies, he said.
“He’s definitely trying to make a point,” said Larry Gerston, professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State. Silicon Valley residents historically have not been more politically active than the rest of the country, but they are passionate about the environment, he said.
In a full-page ad published Sunday in this newspaper and several national publications, Derwin asked Musk to cut ties with Trump.
“ExxonMobile has shown more public courage in pushing back on the Trump climate change agenda than you have,” Derwin wrote in the ad’s open letter. “Please resign from the Trump boards.”
The campaign already has its detractors.
“What a colossal waste of $2 million,” said Ted Halstead, environmental activist and president of the Washington, D.C. think tank Climate Leadership Council.
Musk has won the president’s respect, he said, allowing the tech entrepreneur to promote a carbon tax proposal and push other pro-environmental policies.
“For the next four years, this is the game in town,” Halstead said. “Elon knows what he’s doing.”
Derwin, 59, grew up in Malibu, graduated from UCLA and earned a law degree from Harvard. He moved to the Bay Area and found a niche representing tech companies.
Almost 20 years ago, he decided to form his own company and offer legal advice for equity in startups. It was a good professional move.
Election Day happened to bring Derwin a windfall from one of his private tech investments. But the business success couldn’t overcome his disappointment.
“It depressed me a lot,” he said.
He stopped reading political news.
To lift his spirits, Derwin ordered a loaded P100D Tesla Model S. He does not invest in Tesla stock, but buying a car made sense. It was practical — he lives in San Francisco and doesn’t own a car — and political — supporting Musk’s environmental vision directly opposed Trump’s campaign rhetoric on climate change.
Derwin’s view of Musk changed when the CEO joined two of Trump’s business advisory boards. Like many Musk fans, Derwin holds the entrepreneur to a high standard. He believes Trump’s plan to slash EPA funding and loosen regulations would put future generations at risk.
“Elon Musk is supposed to be a leader,” Derwin said. On climate change, he added, Musk “was saying not a word. There’s not a tweet. There is not a public statement. There is nothing he has said from the time of the election on to criticize Donald Trump.”
Even as Uber CEO Travis Kalanick backed out of the panel and other Silicon Valley executives have avoided Trump, Musk defended his decision to stick with the president.
Musk said he’s better positioned to promote his agenda — accelerating the transition to renewable energy, colonizing Mars and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs.
“Advisory councils simply provide advice and attending does not mean that I agree with actions by the administration,” Musk said in February. “I believe at this time that engaging on critical issues will on balance serve the greater good.”
Derwin doesn’t buy it: “What he’s doing is helping Trump, and he’s not getting anything in return.”
Derwin, a skilled litigator and investor, is a political neophyte.
He’s made a few small donations to campaigns, including support of the effort to defeat the state’s anti-gay marriage proposal, according to public campaign finance data. One check went to a law school classmate running for Congress, he said.
So Derwin stepped cautiously into the public political discourse in March with his anonymous billboard campaign. Simple messages — “Devs: Tech is hiring. Why work for a collaborator?” and “SpaceX: Is Mars worth global warming here? Tell Elon to Dump Trump” — popped up around the Bay Area and near the Musk’s SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne.
In April, Derwin met with three senior Tesla officials at the Fremont factory to discuss a deal: He would stop his planned advertising blitz and donate $1 million to a Musk charity if the CEO spoke out against Trump policies on social media.
The private conversation ended without compromise. Derwin launched a print and television campaign April 23 — including full-page ads in this newspaper, the New York Times, Washington Post and other publications on Sunday. A television campaign also will appear on several news and comedy shows.
Tesla called Derwin’s efforts “quite ironic” for attacking Musk on the environment.
“If someone wants to spend money to promote a pro-environment objective, we can think of better ways to do that than attacking the people who are most committed to that very purpose,” the company responded in a statement. “Mr. Derwin believes those who want a more sustainable future should not have a seat at the table. We disagree.”
The company declined to comment on whether it had lost customers due to Musk’s affiliation with Trump. Derwin said a few owners have told him they have canceled reservations for a Model 3 sedan or dropped plans to buy other Tesla products.
Geoff Crouse, a Tesla owner and health care investor and executive, said the alliance between Trump and Musk changed his views. Crouse believes Musk compromised himself by working with Trump, perhaps to protect the interests of SpaceX, which is heavily dependent on federal contracts.
Crouse and his wife have decided against buying a Model X SUV, and will not purchase Tesla batteries for their Portola Valley home. “Protecting this earth is a lot more important than colonizing Mars,” he said.
Several thousand people have signed an online petition asking Musk to “Dump Trump.” Derwin is offering hats, T-shirts and bumper stickers to supporters at his website elondumptrump.com.
“I have never done any activism at all. I’m not even registered to any political party,” he said. “But it seemed to me that this is an unusual time.”