Now that we have seen the texts sent between Facebook founder and investor Marc Andreessen discussing Zuckerberg’s desire to make sure his stock holdings do not prevent him from being able “to serve two years in government,” as Bloomberg reported, it casts new light on Zuckerberg’s relationship with Peter Thiel.
Thiel, like Andreessen, is a Facebook investor and a board member. He also funded Donald Trump’s election campaign and is now a member of the president-elect’s transition team. If anyone is able to get Zuckerberg a senior federal government appointment, it is Thiel.
There is no evidence that this is what Zuckerberg wants. The texts merely say Zuckerberg wants the door to government kept open, just in case.
But now look at the timeline:
- Early 2016: Zuckerberg seeks permission from his board to create a new class of stock that would allow him to sell much of his ownership in the company but retain voting control.
- March: Board member Erskine Bowles pushes back, because he thinks it would be bad if Zuckerberg had “low economic ownership and then going off on leave with no involvement by the board and retaining control,” according to a text from Andreessen. Zuckerberg wants to be able to retain control of Facebook even if he serves two years in government, Bloomberg reports. But the board eventually acquiesces.
- April 27: Facebook’s board formally agrees to let Zuckerberg sell $32.7 billion in stock while retaining voting control of the remainder of Facebook stock.
- May: Shareholders sue Facebook arguing that the stock plan dilutes the voting power of common stock. Lawyers obtain copies of Zuckerberg’s texts to other members of his board.
- May 25: Thiel is finally revealed as the secret funder of the lawsuits that drove Gawker into bankruptcy. Thiel funded the litigation because he was angry that Gawker accurately reported that he was gay.
- June 1: People begin protesting against Thiel’s membership of the Facebook board. If Facebook supports free speech how can it tolerate a board member who drives news organisations into bankruptcy, critics argue. But COO Sheryl Sandberg — Zuckerberg’s right-hand woman — makes it clear that Thiel is staying.
- June 20: Facebook’s board backs Thiel at its annual meeting. (Zuckerberg is chairman of the board.)
- July 21: Thiel makes a keynote speech in support of Trump at the Republican National Convention.
- October 19: Zuckerberg defends Thiel in a memo to Facebook staff who are appalled at Thiel’s support of Trump, who has made racist statements and told lies during the election campaign. “We can’t create a culture that says it cares about diversity and then excludes almost half the country because they back a political candidate,” Zuckerberg writes.
- November 8: Trump wins the presidential election.
- November 11: Thiel joins Trump’s transition team.
- December 7: Thiel begins bringing colleagues from Silicon Valley onto the Trump transition team.
- December 8: Texts to and from Zuckerberg are published in the shareholder lawsuit. The suit alleges Zuckerberg was considering a stint in government as far back as March.
Zuckerberg has expressed interest in political issues before: He wants to speed up the process of bring worldwide broadband access to the internet, for instance. That might require various rule changes in the telecoms industry, as it greatly impacts the broadband carriers that Facebook and WhatsApp are dependent on. He has also hosted a fundraiser for Trump supporter Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey and former head of Trump’s transition team. Zuckerberg once donated $100 million to Newark’s school system.
We don’t know that Zuckerberg actually wants a role in the Trump administration, of course. But we do know that Zuckerberg successfully defended Thiel during two periods when there was a pressure for him to be removed from the board.
Thiel now owes Zuckerberg a big favour. It will be interesting to see if Zuckerberg ever calls him for it.
This is a column. The opinions and conclusions expressed above are those of the author.
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