Amid growing pressure from its employees — and ominous warnings from a national group known for brutal political attack ads — Microsoft hinted Saturday it might end its contributions to U.S. lawmakers who voted to overturn the election of President Joe Biden.
The Redmond-based tech giant said it will decide by Feb. 15 whether to “suspend further donations” to congressional members who objected to certifying the Electoral College results on Jan. 6, the day Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol.
Microsoft “believes that opposition to the Electoral College undermined American democracy and should have consequences,” said Saturday’s statement, which echoed an announcement made internally Jan. 8, according to the company.
In the 2019-20 campaign cycle, Microsoft’s PAC contributed to two of the eight GOP senators who opposed certification: Josh Hawley of Missouri and Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, according to federal campaign finance disclosures.
It’s unclear whether Microsoft’s promise of a later decision will satisfy employees who have been pressing the company to immediately cut ties to objecting lawmakers, as other companies, including Amazon, have already done.
More immediately, it’s not clear if it will stop the Lincoln Project, a group led by former Republican insiders famous for devastating anti-Trump campaign ads, from unleashing its creative fury on Microsoft over comments President Brad Smith made this past week about the company’s political contributions.
In a Friday Twitter storm, Lincoln Project co-founder Steve Schmidt vowed a broadcast and digital ad campaign aimed at Microsoft customers and employees that “will not stop until Microsoft commits to living its stated values and stops financing the Members of Congress who voted to nullify millions of Black votes after a violent attack on the US Capitol.”
Microsoft, Schmidt tweeted, had chosen to “to remain a financier of the BIG LIE, sedition, insurrection and the nullification of millions of black votes.”
Schmidt’s tweet storm, in turn, appeared to be in response to media reports about leaked comments Smith had made to Microsoft employees during a Thursday employee meeting.
In the comments, which Microsoft made publicly available Friday evening, Smith told employees that the company was reexamining its policy for its political action committee, or PAC. Among the questions Microsoft was asking, Smith said, was “Should the PAC suspend donations to the members who voted against the Electoral College? If so, for how long? Should it even take stronger steps with respect to members who led that effort or who fed disinformation, in our view, to the American public?”
But later in the meeting, Smith also explained why Microsoft didn’t simply discontinue all campaign contributions.
Smith added, with notable candor, that contributions helped Microsoft build relationships with influential politicians. Those relationships could be key when Microsoft needed help on issues such as “green cards, or on visa issues, or help to get an employee or family member who’s outside the United States, or on the issues around national security, or privacy or procurement reform, or the tax issues that our finance team manages,” Smith told employees.
“And I can tell you there are times when I call people who I don’t personally know. And somebody will say, ‘Well, you know, your folks have always shown up for me at my events, and we have a good relationship, let me see what I can do to help you,’ ” Smith added.
Those comments reportedly were shared online and were picked up by several media outlets Friday.
In its statement Saturday, Microsoft didn’t refer specifically to the Lincoln Project. But a company spokesperson suggested that some coverage of the topic had drawn an unwarranted link between Microsoft’s giving to specific objecting lawmakers and its broader philosophy on political contributions.
“It’s unfortunate that people have conflated two separate questions, whether we should have a PAC and whether we should contribute to those who objected to the Electoral College,” the spokesperson said. “We clearly can do the first without the second.”
The Lincoln Project did not respond to a request for comment.
And on Saturday afternoon, Schmidt seemed to walk back his earlier warnings. “@Microsoft has sent a crystal clear message about the importance of democracy. I’m confident Microsoft will do the right thing with regard to support for 147 Members who voted to silence millions of black Americans by nullifying their votes.”
Chris Vance, a veteran Seattle area political consultant and former chair of the Washington State Republican Party, who is listed as a senior adviser for the Lincoln Project, said Microsoft’s reluctance to immediately sever ties with objecting lawmakers fits the company’s profile for extreme caution when it comes to politics.
Vance said the company largely avoided politics in its early years, and even after it launched a PAC, remained so concerned with political neutrality that it maintained two separate internal operations to raise contributions from employees — one for Democratic employees giving to Democrats and one for Republican employees giving to Republicans.
“Microsoft is just really cautious and deliberative about how they dip their toe in political waters,” Vance said. “They’ve always tried to play both sides.”
But on this particular political issue, the Lincoln Project appeared unwilling to leave Microsoft to its cautious approach. Vance described the Lincoln Project as “the enforcer” for the coalition of largely Republican organizations that formed to defeat Donald Trump and the broader movement of Trumpism, which has sought to undermine democratic institutions.
“Within that community, the Lincoln Project is the enforcer, the ‘we’re not pulling any punches, we’re gonna get in your face’ — that’s why they exist,” Vance said. “They are going to wage constant war against [Trumpism]. And they’re never going to back down.”