'F*** Elon Musk,' lawmaker responds to Tesla CEO's threat

New York (CNN Business)Elon Musk truly entered the public consciousness just over a decade ago, when Tesla (TSLA) was a quirky upstart putting batteries in the chassis of a little Lotus sports car. Musk grew it into an electric powerhouse, building cars that he promised would one day drive themselves, with doors that swung upward much like the time machine from Back to the Future.

Musk deftly played the part of a new kind of CEO, one who made jokes on Twitter, engaged with fans, and even sought to re-define the very idea of what “fun” could be in a car. Then things began to change. Increasingly, the risks Musk has been taking are not with his own money, or even his own life, but with the money, careers, reputations and lives of others. And the boundaries that once held him back are caving under the pressure.
This week, the fun CEO from the past has become something different. What that is exactly may depend on your view of him and the current pandemic. Maybe he’s a figure out of an Ayn Rand novel standing up against “sweeping, authoritarian and undemocratic restrictions on individual liberty” that are holding back business and the public, working for the greater good and ensuring that his workers can keep earning a living. Or maybe he’s just another old-school executive (albeit one who’s very attached to Twitter) demanding that he be allowed to send his non-unionized factory workers back to assemble cars at potential risk to their health and in violation of orders from the local health department in service of no greater purpose than his company’s profits.
Musk’s public persona today could not be more different from its beginnings. Once there was an entrepreneurial executive, helpfully cheering on popular cartoonists, urging on workers and mocking the established investors who doubted the company could survive.
After years without turning a profit, Tesla is now poised to be a powerhouse
Tesla and Musk promised big things that car companies had never done before, and when critics doubted those promises could ever be met, the company exceeded them. Musk promised an SUV that could go more than 300 miles on a charge and accelerate faster than a Porsche, seemingly impossible feats but soon enough, customers were driving them. Tesla cars could do the seemingly miraculous. They could be updated over the air in real time, even getting reminders to recharge when their electricity supply was threatened by wildfires. Tesla’s market capitalization grew and grew in ways that looked just as miraculous.

Musk entertained notions of flights to Mars, and at the same time denied that it was his home planet. He behaved unlike any other car company CEO before him, and legions of adoring fans fell in line, giving his Twitter account a level of attention rivaling that of President Donald Trump. When Elon Musk tweets a vague hint about an upcoming product reveal or reports of potential planetary destruction, news outlets pick it up immediately. Even Twitter (TWTR) CEO Jack Dorsey has asked Musk’s advice on how to improve the service.

    Ford’s (F) CEO, Jim Hackett, doesn’t have a Twitter account.
    Everything seemed great until it didn’t.
    In the summer of 2018, a boys’ soccer team in Thailand became trapped in a cave that was quickly filling with water. As the 12 boys and their coach waited desperately for rescue, Musk stepped in to offer his services. His team could use much of the same capsule technology developed by Musk’s rocket company, SpaceX, to build a submarine capsule to aid in the rescue, he said at the time.
    California officials capitulate to Elon Musk, allow Tesla plant to reopen
    But after one of the rescuers involved in the life-saving effort criticized the vessel, Musk lashed out, baselessly calling the rescuer a “pedo,” which is often shorthand for “pedophile,” but which Musk maintained merely meant “creepy.”
    It was the first time that Musk’s apparent belief that he can do anything, that he knows better than the traditional experts, brought a wide public backlash down on him.
    The rescuer sued Musk for defamation. Musk won, and the civil victory only seemed to embolden him and appeared to defuse the effect any criticism had had on him. Whereas Musk was once the rebellious leader of a scrappy upstart, he was now the wealthy tycoon who had crushed a lone emergency responder in court after publicly calling him, at best, “creepy.”
    Even before the lawsuit victory, however, Musk’s Twitter account veered in another expensive direction. On August 7, 2018, Musk tweeted that he was taking Tesla private at a price of $420 per share, and that the funding for the deal was “secured.” An announcement like that would send shockwaves through the business world however it was made. That it was tweeted out with such relative nonchalance was either the hallmark of an unconventional executive getting deals done — or, perhaps, of something going off the rails.

    In pictures: Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk

    Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, poses for a photo in 2013.

    Musk, left, is seen with his brother, Kimbal, in this childhood photo <a href="https://www.instagram.com/p/Byxl2pIJrkL/?hl=en" target="_blank">posted by their mother, Maye.</a> Elon Musk was born June 28, 1971, in Pretoria, South Africa. His mother is a model and nutritionist. His father, Errol, is an engineer.

    Musk is seen at left with his sister, Tosca, and Kimbal in 1976.

    "When Elon was young, I noticed that he read everything," <a href="https://observer.com/2020/01/tesla-elon-musk-old-photos-maye-musk-book/" target="_blank">Maye Musk wrote in her book</a> "A Woman Makes a Plan: Advice for a Lifetime of Adventure, Beauty and Success." When Elon was 12, he wrote code for a video game called "Blastar" and sold it to a computer magazine for $500.

    Musk celebrates his 18th birthday in 1989. He would leave South Africa for Canada, where he studied at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. In 1995, Musk graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with degrees in economics and physics.

    Maye Musk celebrates her 50th birthday party with her children in 1998. With her, from left, are Tosca, Kimbal and Elon. In 1995, Elon Musk co-founded Zip2 Corp., a company that developed online city guides. He would sell it to Compaq in 1999 for $307 million.

    PayPal CEO Peter Thiel, left, and Musk pose at the company's corporate headquarters in Palo Alto, California, in 2000. Musk had co-founded X.com, an online banking and financial services company. It merged with Continuity in 2000 and was renamed PayPal. The online payment platform was acquired by eBay in a $1.5 billion deal in 2002. Musk pocketed $165 million.

    Musk poses next to a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft in 2008. Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the intention of making space travel cheaper and more accessible. In 2010, the Dragon became <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2010/US/12/08/space.flight/" target="_blank">the first commercial spacecraft to orbit the Earth and return.</a> In 2012, it became the first private capsule <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2012/05/25/us/spacex/" target="_blank">to connect to the International Space Station.</a>

    Musk, bottom, watches a Falcon 1 rocket lift off in 2008. It was the first privately developed liquid-fuel rocket to reach orbit.

    In 2008, Musk became CEO and product architect of Tesla Motors. Years earlier, he had joined the electric-car company as chairman of the board, overseeing its initial round of investment funding.

    Musk walks with US President Barack Obama at Florida's Kennedy Space Center in 2010.

    Musk is joined by his fiancee, actress Talulah Riley, and his twin sons, Griffin and Xavier, at a Nasdaq opening-bell ceremony in 2010. Musk has been married three times — twice to Riley. Their second divorce came in 2016.

    Musk unveils the Falcon Heavy rocket, billed as the world's most powerful rocket, in 2011. Musk told CNN he decided to build the rocket to put bigger satellites into orbit.

    Musk attends the opening of a Tesla store in Newport Beach, California.

    Musk walks in a procession after delivering the commencement speech at the California Institute of Technology in 2012.

    Musk holds up a model rocket in this photo for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine in 2012.

    Musk appears on the late-night talk show "Jimmy Kimmel Live" in 2013.

    Musk poses with a Tesla during a visit to Amsterdam, Netherlands, in 2014.

    Musk and his then-wife, Talulah Riley, attend the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in 2014.

    Musk represents SpaceX at a US Senate subcommittee hearing in 2014. The hearing was to learn more about space launch programs. SpaceX had already landed a few federal contracts at that point, and Musk made his case for more.

    Musk unveils the dual-engine chassis of the new Tesla Model D in 2014.

    Musk attends the Time 100 Gala with filmmaker George Lucas, left, and rapper Kanye West in 2015.

    Musk guest-stars on an episode of the TV sitcom "The Big Bang Theory" in 2015. He played himself.

    Musk has long said he wants to make humans an "interplanetary species," and in 2016 <a href="https://money.cnn.com/2016/09/27/technology/spacex-elon-musk-mars-colonization/index.html" target="_blank">he laid out his plan to colonize Mars.</a> He was speaking at the International Astronautical Congress, a meeting of multiple international space-exploration associations.

    Musk and other business leaders listen to US President Donald Trump during a visit to the White House in 2017.

    Musk speaks to reporters in 2018, a day before SpaceX <a href="https://money.cnn.com/2018/02/06/technology/future/spacex-falcon-heavy-launch-mainbar/index.html" target="_blank">launched the Falcon Heavy,</a> the world's most powerful rocket.

    Musk and his girlfriend, singer Grimes, attend the Met Gala in New York in 2018.

    Musk is seen on a television monitor on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in 2018. Musk smoked a joint while <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/01/tech/elon-musk-joe-rogan/index.html" target="_blank">talking to podcast host Joe Rogan </a>about what it's like inside his head ("a never-ending explosion"), keeping a car company in business ("very difficult") and trying to get governments to regulate artificial intelligence ("nobody listened").

    In 2018, Musk <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/19/tech/boring-company-tunnel-elon-musk/index.html" target="_blank">demonstrates his Boring Company's first tunnel.</a> It was built as an experiment in underground transportation, with the aim of providing alternative routes to traffic-jammed streets.

    Musk leaves a federal court in New York in 2019. The Securities and Exchange Commission had asked the court to hold Musk in contempt for violating an agreement that requires he get pre-approval for social-media posts about Tesla. The judge asked Musk and the SEC to go back to the drawing board and better define exactly how and when Musk's tweets need to be reviewed. The two parties <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/26/tech/elon-musk-sec-settlement/index.html" target="_blank">were able to reach a settlement.</a>

    Musk <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/22/cars/tesla-cybertruck-electric-pickup-truck/index.html" target="_blank">reveals Tesla's new electric pickup truck</a> in 2019. A demonstration of the Cybertruck's supposedly unbreakable windows backfired, however, when a metal ball thrown at the windows did, in fact, break them.

    Musk leaves a federal court in Los Angeles in 2019. After a four-day trial, a jury took less than an hour to decide that Musk <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/06/media/elon-musk-defamation-trial-verdict/index.html" target="_blank">did not defame a British caver</a> when he sent a tweet calling him a "pedo guy." Defense lawyer Alex Spiro said Musk's tweet "was a joking, deleted, apologized for, responsive tweet."

    Musk attends a Tesla ceremony in Shanghai, China, in January 2020. Tesla <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/07/tech/tesla-elon-musk-china/index.html" target="_blank">started delivering</a> its Shanghai-made Model 3 cars to the public, the first step in Musk's much bolder plan for the world's biggest market.

    Musk speaks at a January 2020 news conference after SpaceX's new crew-worthy spacecraft, Crew Dragon, <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/19/tech/spacex-crew-dragon-launch-in-flight-abort-test/index.html" target="_blank">reached its last major milestone</a> in a years-long testing program. NASA asked the private sector to develop crew-worthy spacecraft to replace the space shuttle program after it was retired in 2011. SpaceX was allotted $2.6 billion and Boeing was awarded $4.2 billion in 2014, and the space agency initially predicted their vehicles would be ready to fly astronauts by 2017. But development of both spacecrafts took years longer than expected.

    Musk looks at his new baby boy in <a href="https://twitter.com/mayemusk/status/1259297517776171008" target="_blank">this tweet </a>posted by his mother in May 2020. The baby, <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/06/entertainment/grimes-elon-musk-baby-name-intl-scli/index.html" target="_blank">named X Æ A-12,</a> is his first child with Grimes. He has five other children from a previous marriage.

    It quickly emerged that the deal was far from done, and the would-be funding from Saudi Arabia never materialized. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission stepped in, saying that “in truth and in fact, Musk had not even discussed, much less confirmed, key deal terms, including price, with any potential funding source.”

      Surely this would be the straw that broke the back of Musk’s Twitter feed. It’s one thing to target a cave diver without Musk’s own vast resources. It’s entirely different to take on the regulators of the American federal government. Shareholders filed lawsuits alleging that he was intentionally manipulating Tesla’s stock price.
      The SEC wanted to prohibit Musk from acting as an officer or director of a publicly traded company, effectively demanding that he be removed from Tesla entirely.
      But it didn’t stick. Musk spent the next few weeks mocking the SEC from, of course, his Twitter account. After months of negotiations, the SEC agreed to a weakened settlement, the only significant result of which was that Tesla would appoint a new chairman, and Musk’s tweets on some topics — largely limited to the company’s financial well-being and production numbers — would now be reviewed by “an experienced securities lawyer.”
      It didn’t seem to matter to investors. Tesla’s share price soared ever-higher, soon totaling a market capitalization greater than the former “Big Three” of Ford, General Motors (GM) and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCAU) combined.
      Then the coronavirus pandemic began.
      In a county that is one of the hardest hit by coronavirus in the area, Tesla workers are returning to the company’s factory in Fremont, California. Despite an order from local health authorities prohibiting the manufacture and assembly of non-essential goods, the Tesla factory began churning out vehicles once more over the weekend.
      Elon Musk rails against stay-at-home orders while tweeting debunked and controversial coronavirus claims
      Musk, as usual, took to Twitter, saying that if anyone was to be arrested for violating the order, it should be him.
      The local health department capitulated, acceding to Musk’s demands that the factory reopen next week, even though production has already re-started.

        It is a situation that has been months in the making. Musk has long questioned the actual risk from the coronavirus. As early as January he tweeted that the coronavirus was no more dangerous than other common viruses despite expert opinions that it is, in fact, far more deadly.
        By March, when there were just over 15,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases nationally he was tweeting that the U.S. would have “close to zero” new cases by the end of April.
        “The coronavirus panic is dumb,” he wrote.
        Also in March, when Alameda County, California, where Tesla’s headquarters and a manufacturing facility are located, put in place stay-at-home orders, Tesla delayed its shutdown for a week.
        But by the end of April, the country was fast approaching the 1 million cases mark. By the time Musk forced his factory to reopen, more than 80,000 Americans had died.
        On a recent conference call with investors Musk took time to rail against stay-at-home restrictions that, he said, were hampering his business, likening them to “forcibly imprisoning people in their homes.”
        In re-opening the factory, Musk and Tesla have said that steps are being taken to ensure workers’ safety. County health officials have said they would be monitoring those efforts to ensure that workers are, as much as possible, protected from infection.
        Musk and Tesla are not known for erring entirely on the side of caution even when it comes matters of safety. This is, after all, the company that provides Autopilot semi-autonomous driving software for its cars that comes with the warning that it is still in “beta test” mode. Musk and Tesla have insisted that the software is, on balance, safer than an unaided human driver when used as intended. Other automakers that offer such technology, though, have said that they would not ask driver to “beta test” the software on public roads.

          Tesla’s way is not to wait, though. While other automakers wait until lockdown orders have been lifted to even begin reopening their plants Tesla pushes ahead. For better or worse, that is what Tesla and Musk do. But now, with seemingly nothing in government or his company holding back Musk’s impulses, the well-being and the lives of their workers rest on that decision.
          And for better or worse, the barriers that are set up by society are dependent on the institutions that maintain them to ensure their strength. But those barriers were not designed to withstand an assault from an aggressive CEO backed by vast personal wealth, workers faced with a soaring unemployment rate, and a regulatory framework that crumbles when faced with a genuine, calamitous test. With an Elon Musk-sized hole smashed in those barriers, it’s unclear that anything is holding Musk back.
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