fb-pixelThe US government can’t quit Elon Musk - even amid erratic behavior - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

The US government can’t quit Elon Musk - even amid erratic behavior

Elon Musk departed following a meeting in the office of then House Speaker Kevin McCarthy at the Capitol in Washington in September.STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

Some of Elon Musk’s biggest business clients are rethinking their relationship with his tech empire amid a fresh spurt of controversial behavior. Now, so is Congress.

Since Musk parroted antisemitic tropes and boosted a debunked conspiracy theory about child sex trafficking, some lawmakers are calling for the federal government to reevaluate its relationship with the tech mogul, whose companies receive billions of dollars in federal contracts. Some lawmakers said they were particularly concerned by a September report that Musk restricted access to a satellite network critical to Ukraine's fight against Russia.

"The idea that battlefield decisions are contingent upon his goodwill, that's not a great position to be in," Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), chair of the Select Committee on Intelligence, told The Washington Post.

Advertisement



Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), another member of the Intelligence Committee and chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement that federal agencies should "where possible exercise their discretion to work with other entities."

But it may not be easy to disentangle the government from Musk's sprawling tech empire, which includes commercial spaceflight firm SpaceX, prolific satellite internet service Starlink, electric automaker Tesla, medical device company Neuralink and the social media site X, formerly known as Twitter.

Many of those businesses are so dominant - SpaceX built the only U.S.-made spacecraft that has launched astronauts to the International Space Station, and Tesla claims 50 percent of U.S. EV sales and a vast charging network - the federal government would face steep challenges to find other private sector partners to replace them, analysts said. (Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos owns a competing commercial spaceflight firm, Blue Origin.)

"The issue for the government is, can they get a better service somewhere else?" said James Andrew Lewis, a senior researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "And if the answer is no, you have to hold your nose and stick with him."

Advertisement



Some lawmakers said that no matter what Musk does on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, it would be difficult to replace his other companies.

"Ultimately, the performance of some of these companies in relation to the United States is they provide important capabilities," Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), told The Post. "They have contractual obligations and restrictions that are placed on who can know what and what you're allowed to do. As long as they're meeting those, this is one of the things we're going to have to navigate. He's never going to be one of those strait-laced, corner office types. He has a larger-than-life personality."

Musk and representatives from X did not respond to requests for comment.

Musk has long been a colorful figure in the tech world. But his recent controversies have drawn widespread condemnation - and prompted some firms to cut advertising on X.

In 2022, Musk refused a request from the Ukrainian military to utilize Starlink's satellites to guide an attack on Russian forces in occupied Ukrainian territory, journalist and historian Walter Isaacson wrote in a Musk biography published in September. Musk had allowed Ukraine to use the service for free before the incident. Afterward, the U.S. Department of Defense contracted with Starlink to purchase the service for Ukraine.

Earlier this month, Musk endorsed a statement on X that declared Jews spread hatred against White communities, part of a crescendo of anti-Jewish vitriol on his social media site in the aftermath of Hamas's Oct. 7 massacre of Israeli civilians and Israel's war in Gaza. The White House condemned the post as an "abhorrent promotion of antisemitic and racist hate," and droves of advertisers and high-profile users left the platform.

Advertisement



"I don't think anybody should be talking in terms of antisemitic statements, period," Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), another member of the Intelligence Committee, said. "That's a very broad statement. We shouldn't allow that."

Less than two weeks after that post, Musk voiced support for Pizzagate, the long-debunked conspiracy theory that led a man to fire a rifle in 2016 inside Comet Ping Pong, a pizza restaurant in Northwest Washington, D.C.

"The stuff he says I'm certainly concerned about. You see these comments and I think, in general, somebody in his position should be more thoughtful," said Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), a former NASA astronaut who has advised Musk and SpaceX on safety issues.

On Thursday, Musk apologized for the antisemitic post at an event hosted by the New York Times, calling it "foolish of me" and saying, "it might be literally the worst and dumbest post I've ever done." Earlier in the week, he also visited Israel to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And he deleted his Pizzagate post.

"Essentially I handed a loaded gun to those who hate me and arguably to those who are antisemitic, and for that, I'm quite sorry. That was not my intention," Musk said. "I did post on my primary timeline to be absolutely clear that I'm not antisemitic and that, in fact, if I am anything, I am philosemitic."

Advertisement



In the same conversation, he told advertisers who had left X because of his offensive posts to "go f--- themselves."

"I have no problem being hated," he added. "Hate away."

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees, said lawmakers had "kind of zero" trust that Musk and his firms could be reliable federal partners. Still, various agencies - particularly NASA - have helped Musk make federal contracts a crucial part of his companies' growth.

SpaceX won a pair of NASA contracts worth roughly $4 billion in 2021 to build a human landing system for the Artemis moon missions. The company in 2014 sued the government to halt a lucrative space contract by the Air Force awarded to a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Later that year, NASA chose SpaceX and Boeing as the winners of nearly $7 billion in contracts to launch crewed space missions. Only SpaceX has successfully carried crews to the International Space Station since, and earned tens of millions of dollars flying cargo missions to the space station.

"One of his strengths is his ability to take advantage of the federal government as a funding source for his efforts," Lewis said. "A lot of the success that he's known for started out with a healthy dose of federal funding, and he wasn't shy about demanding more."

Advertisement



Starlink has contracts with the Defense Department, though the value and scope of those deals have not been publicly disclosed.

Meanwhile, Tesla and its industry-leading electric vehicle charging network are key to the Biden administration's goals to increase consumer EV adoption. Under the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, one of President Biden's chief legislative victories, Congress approved $5 billion in new spending to build a national EV charging network.

Tesla has been the early leader in that program, winning tens of millions of dollars in funding to improve its already impressive network and open it to non-Tesla vehicles. In June, Ford, GM and Rivian signed agreements to use Tesla's charging technology for their new EVs, dramatically increasing Tesla's competitiveness for federal charging dollars. Honda signed on to Tesla's charging system in September.

"They've got this figured out," said Julian Bentley, an independent clean energy and EV consultant. "They're able to put these in at a fraction of the cost of everybody else, because they just do it better."

Tesla models below a certain price also benefit from a $7,500 consumer tax rebate for EVs included in the Inflation Reduction Act, another of Biden's key congressional achievements.

Scott Anderson, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and former State Department attorney said the federal government would face significant challenges if it tried to cut off Musk-related contracts. Much of his behavior, however objectionable, is protected by the First Amendment, Anderson said, leaving agencies without much recourse unless his behavior began to hinder his execution of his contracts.

And while some lawmakers are wary of Musk's behavior, many remain steadfastly complimentary of his firms' products. Warner called him "brilliant." Kaine said he and Tesla have done "some responsible things" by helping drivers transition to zero-emission electric vehicles.

Before SpaceX proved its Crew Dragon spacecraft with the 2020 launch of two NASA astronauts, the U.S. relied on Russian rockets to reach the International Space Station. Now SpaceX is the lead private-sector partner in NASA's moon mission.

"SpaceX did something largely because of his motivation to do this," Kelly said. "That's been a tremendous win for our country."

- - -

Christian Davenport contributed to this report.