In early December, the name of a candidate to be the science adviser to the president began percolating in Trump Tower: David Gelernter, the reclusive Yale University computer scientist known for his dripping disdain for the liberal intellectual elite and for surviving an attack by the Unabomber.
Gelernter had no connection to Trump or his top political aides. And he would be an unconventional choice for the post: The 61-year-old professor is neither a physicist nor biologist, as is typical for the post, but a pioneering technologist credited with predicting the rise of the Internet.
But Gelernter has long been friendly with Peter Thiel. He regularly attends an annual conference of iconoclastic thinkers that the Silicon Valley billionaire hosts on the French Riviera. So it was on Thiel’s recommendation that Gelernter sat down at Trump Tower with the president-elect, his chief strategist Steve Bannon, and Thiel himself four days before the inauguration. The meeting followed a prior discussion between Gelernter and senior transition officials.
Gelernter’s potential elevation is just one small sign of Thiel’s growing stature in Trump world. He was a near-constant presence throughout the transition: Working with a staff of four to six aides from an office in Trump Tower, Thiel dispatched associates from his investment firms to help staff agencies across the government. Their reach extended from the Department of Commerce to the Pentagon and eventually to the White House, where one of his closest aides, Kevin Harrington, was recently elevated to the National Security Council.
“Once Election Day came and went, Peter Thiel was a major force in the transition,” said a senior Trump campaign aide. “When you have offices and you bring staff with you and you attend all the meetings, then you have a lot of power.” At the Presidio, the old Army fort in San Francisco where Thiel’s investment firms are housed, many of his employees have taken to calling him “the shadow president.”
The notion is not entirely absurd. If Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, is one ideological pillar of the Trump White House, Thiel, operating from outside the administration, is the other. Bannon’s ideology is a sort of populist nationalism, while Thiel’s is tech-centric: He believes progress is dependent on a revolution in technology that has been largely stymied by government regulation.
Thiel is a contrarian by nature, and his support for Trump was a signature long-shot bet that is paying big dividends in terms of access to and influence on the new administration.
Trump’s surprise victory in November also gave Thiel a renewed faith in the possibilities of politics, and he has worked around the clock to push friends and associates into positions that will give them sway over science and technology policy, an area he believes has been routinely neglected under previous administrations.
That helps to explain why Jim O’Neill, a managing director at Thiel’s venture capital firm, Mithril Capital Management, is now being considered to run the Food and Drug Administration. O’Neill served at the Department of Health and Human Services in the George W. Bush administration but has no medical background. He has argued that drugs should not have to go through clinical trials to prove their efficacy before they are sold to consumers.
“The fact that Jim is even in consideration for the position is astonishing,” said one Thiel associate. “It’s legitimately an outrageous coup for Peter to be able to put somebody at that high a level of government.”
Trae Stephens, a longtime Thiel colleague who oversaw the Defense Department transition, raised the eyebrows of officials as he traipsed through the bowels of the Pentagon asking questions about the government procurement process. Stephens spent several years at Palantir, the Thiel-founded data-mining company that brought a successful lawsuit against the government taking a sledgehammer to the Pentagon’s rigid procurement process. A federal court ruled in October that the company could bid on a $206 million Pentagon contract it would normally have been prevented from competing for.
Inside the Pentagon, Stephens’ focus, according to two sources familiar with the conversations, was on “how one might restructure the DOD’s procurement operations to save money.”
Stephens’ inquiries were “unusual, that’s why people mentioned it to me,” said one of the sources, a former high-level Pentagon official.
The lawsuit, Palantir’s lawyer said in the wake of the October ruling, wasn’t just about the company’s bottom line; it was aimed at “making it more appealing for innovators” to do business in the nation’s capital. Stephens did not respond to a request for comment.
In addition to Thiel and his team in Trump Tower, a handful of Thiel associates also took on critical posts in the Trump transition, with Harrington, now at the NSC, working to fill positions at the Department of Commerce; and Mark Woolway, a Thiel colleague from his PayPal days, doing the same the Treasury Department. Others slated to take on important roles in the administration — such as Josh Wright, who is likely to run the Justice Department’s antitrust division — have come with Thiel’s imprimatur.
A spokesman for Thiel declined to comment for the story. A senior White House official would say only that “Peter has been a very prominent supporter of the president’s and we are grateful for his support.”
An aligning of outcasts
The openly gay, 49-year-old tech entrepreneur and the 70-year-old real-estate magnate have little in common on the surface. But the two share qualities that have made Thiel a valued adviser in Trump world, particularly as the politicians who supported Trump during the campaign — Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani — have slowly fallen away.
Both Thiel and Trump are outcasts, Thiel in liberal Silicon Valley, where his libertarian politics have set him apart; Trump in the world of New York real estate, where his outer borough bombast made him an object of derision. Both are distrustful of elites and conventional wisdom.
Thiel is a devotee of the Stanford literary critic and philosopher René Girard, most famous for his theory of “mimetic desire” — the idea that people learn to want the same things, which eventually causes conflict. In a 2011 interview with The New Yorker’s George Packer, Thiel said he was troubled by how “disturbingly herdlike people become in so many different contexts,” and that he has “always tried to be contrarian, to go against the crowd, to identify opportunities in places where people are not looking.”
There is no better or more recent example of that than Trump’s candidacy, which upended every law of politics the so-called experts thought held true.
Old-fashioned political connections, forged in Manhattan boardrooms and sleek Silicon Valley office spaces, also helped ease Thiel’s ascension in Trump’s orbit. His initial connection to Trump came through the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Thiel is a longtime investor in the health care startup founded by Kushner’s brother, Josh and Thiel and Jared Kushner had extensive conversations in the spring of 2016 about whether he would become a delegate for Trump in California’s Republican primary.
Thiel went public with his support for Trump in May at the urging of Kevin Harrington, a longtime principal at Thiel Capital with whom he has — as another Thiel employee described it — a sort of “mind meld.” Not only did Thiel serve as a delegate for the GOP nominee, but he delivered a prime-time speech on his behalf at the Republican National Convention and contributed more than $1 million to his campaign.
His high-profile demonstrations of support thereafter won the attention and affection of Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump.
“Thiel is immensely powerful within the administration through his connection to Jared,” said a senior Trump campaign aide.
The Trump campaign bible
Campaign aides also say that Thiel’s 200-page treatise on startups, “Zero to One,” served as something of a bible among Trump campaign staffers. Leafing through the book, which encapsulates some of Thiel’s iconoclastic views, it’s immediately apparent why Trump’s aides were receptive to it. Thiel argues that savvy marketing is as important as a decent product; that it’s better to be bold than to be inconsequential; and that technology rather than globalization will shape the future.
The book originated in a class Thiel taught at Stanford, and Blake Masters, one of his students who became his co-author, was at his side during the transition, conducting interviews with candidates for various administration posts. Also along for the ride: Michael Kratsios, Thiel’s chief of staff, and Charlie Kirk, a 23-year-old wunderkind who blew off college to start a grass-roots organization dedicated to training young conservatives in the art of persuasion — and plugging them into the right networks.
Thiel’s most visible involvement in the transition came during a fleeting moment in mid-December when he organized a summit that brought some of the country’s top technology executives, from Apple’s Tim Cook to Google’s Larry Page to Trump Tower for a meeting with the president-elect. Cameras captured him entering the gold-paneled elevators in the lobby, and, shortly thereafter, Trump gently petting his hand as the tech executives and a slew of reporters looked on in astonishment.
Few remarked at the time how surprising his presence there, and his involvement in the transition, actually were. Thiel has for years pooh-poohed politics. “In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms,” he wrote in a 2009 essay published by the libertarian Cato Institute, in which he argued that “we are in a deadly race between politics and technology.”
In “Zero to One,” Thiel argues that technological progress stalled in the 1970s in part because of to the growth of entitlement programs and the explosion of the regulatory state. His venture capital firm, Mithril Capital, pours money into companies that are leveraging technology in new ways. It, too, has deepened his belief that government regulation is impeding technological advancement.
The result, he writes, is that the country — and the world — has seen change without progress.
“The government used to be able to coordinate complex solutions to problems like atomic weaponry and lunar exploration. But today, after 40 years of indefinite creep, the government mainly just provides insurance; our solutions to big problems are Medicare, Social Security, and a dizzying array of other transfer payment programs,” he writes in “Zero to One.”
Life extension technology, in which he has a deep interest, is but one example. “My own guess is that I will live to age 100 to 120, so I’m frustrated that the technologies aren’t going as quickly as they should because of government interference,” he told the libertarian magazine Reason in 2008. He expounded on that view in a 2015 interview with The Washington Post in which he aired his concern that “the FDA is too restrictive,” that “pharmaceutical sales are way too bureaucratic,” and that government is filled with people who are “nimble in the art of writing grants who have squeezed out the more creative.”
Removing those hurdles is precisely what Thiel’s friends and associates across the government will be looking to do, with an eye to bringing about a Thielian world in which people live to 120 years old — on libertarian islands in the middle of the ocean, if they so choose.