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Elon Musk
Elon Musk personally visited the White House last fall. Patrick Pleul/AP

The Co-Dependent Relationship of Joe Biden and Elon Musk

Many in the administration treat the Tesla and SpaceX owner as a “nation-state,” one source told NOTUS.

Two of the most powerful men in the world don’t have many kind words to say about each other. But their fates are inextricably intertwined.

Increasingly, President Joe Biden and Elon Musk are knotted together on everything from sprawling infrastructure projects to global security, both presidency-defining issues for Biden as he nears the end of his first term in office.

As Biden tries to transition the country to electric vehicles, no single company — or person — will be more responsible for building that electric future than Musk. Musk’s SpaceX has a virtual monopoly on rocket launches in the U.S., making it the only company currently ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station. And his Starlink satellite internet has been central to the war in Ukraine.

NOTUS interviews with current and former Biden administration officials show the administration is keenly aware of how much power Musk has and the ways in which, as both a government contractor and the owner of major commercial companies, he can alter domestic and foreign policy on a whim.

Musk is treated as if he were a “nation-state” by many in the administration, lamented one person with knowledge of the federal government’s workings. The amount of government support his companies have received is “staggering,” a Biden administration official said. A Defense official said the department is trying not to be “over-reliant” on SpaceX or other companies.

Musk, who once called Biden “a damp sock puppet in human form,” has a notoriously rocky public relationship with Biden. However, he has also met with White House officials, and his companies employ well-connected lobbyists in touch with numerous government agencies. Musk visited the White House last fall, and in early 2023, he met with then-White House infrastructure coordinator Mitch Landrieu and Biden senior adviser John Podesta to discuss the infrastructure bill.

“They have a big footprint,” Landrieu said at the time when asked about the meeting.

Biden has rarely publicly spoken about Musk aside from answering periodic questions about him from the press. The White House did condemn a Musk tweet last November as an “abhorrent promotion of antisemitic and racist hate.”

Joe Biden
President Joe Biden has touted electric vehicles as a solution to climate change. Evan Vucci/AP

Yet the White House has little chance of achieving one of its biggest domestic policy priorities without Musk’s business.

Biden’s ambitious plan for converting America off fossil fuels means building a network of half a million electric vehicle charging stations, which would allow drivers to crisscross the country in an electric car without fear of getting stranded with a dead battery. Having places for people to charge their cars away from home is central to transitioning the country to clean energy, and the Biden administration pushed for billions in funding for charging stations in the 2021 infrastructure bill.

Right now, Musk, and not the federal government, is the biggest contributor to Biden’s goal. Tesla Inc. has not only won more contracts for charging stations funded by the infrastructure bill than any other company, but it is also independently building hundreds of charging ports each month, making Tesla the biggest player in the market.

Only seven of the federally funded charging sites are open, according to data collected by Loren McDonald, CEO of the data firm EVAdoption. But states have doled out grants to build several hundred more charging stations, and Tesla has secured contracts for more chargers than any other company, according to EVAdoption.

The chargers built using the infrastructure bill money will serve a unique purpose: They will fund charging infrastructure in areas where it does not yet exist, allowing people who own electric cars to more easily drive long stretches.

When it comes to building out overall infrastructure for electric vehicles, Tesla is zooming ahead faster than both the government-funded work and its competitor companies. Tesla is currently building roughly 40 stations a month and has more than 2,000 stations online. Its charging stations often have more ports for cars to fuel up: Tesla has 25,172 charging ports available, accounting for more than half of the EV charging ports available nationwide, according to EVAdoption data.

Tesla is powerful enough that when it announced in 2023 that it would open up its chargers to non-Tesla cars, it kicked off an industry-wide pivot from other plug-in formats to the one developed by Tesla, creating a new de facto standard for electric vehicles. The federal government had actually mandated that grantees for its program use a different charging plug-in that is more common in Europe. (The administration later said companies are welcome to build charging stations with Tesla chargers as long as they also include one of the alternate plug-ins.)

Tesla’s pivot on charging even elicited rare praise from Biden on X, the social media site owned by Musk.

“In building our EV charging network, we have to ensure that as many chargers work for as many drivers as possible. To that end, @elonmusk will open a big part of @Tesla’s network up to all drivers,” Biden said. “That’s a big deal, and it’ll make a big difference.”

Elon Musk, Alex Karp
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has become central to President Joe Biden’s foreign policy priorities. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Musk is similarly central to one of Biden’s prime foreign policy priorities. Starlink, which is part of Musk’s SpaceX, became a crucial tool for Ukraine in its war against Russia quickly after the 2022 invasion, when Starlink sent thousands of terminals into Ukraine, providing vital satellite internet access.

But SpaceX’s interests have not always aligned with those of the U.S. government. A 2023 biography of Musk revealed that he had refused a request from Ukraine for Starlink support to help the country attack Russian naval vessels in Crimea. (At the time, Musk did not have a military contract with the U.S. government for Starlink’s services in Ukraine, though that has changed in the months since.)

The Crimea incident raised questions at the Pentagon and among security experts concerned that in a different crisis, Musk could similarly subvert an American foreign policy agenda.

“Essentially, Starlink has a monopoly in this moment when it comes to that capability,” said Steven Feldstein, a former Obama administration State Department aide and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But Starlink terminals can “leak” into the hands of countries like Russia whose interests do not align with the United States, Feldstein said.

Asked about Starlink terminals that have allegedly been used by Russian forces, the Defense official said that “the Department of Defense is aware of reports that some Russian forces in occupied Ukraine are using Starlink terminals,” and that, “in accordance with their U.S. government contracts and licenses, SpaceX has been fully cooperative in addressing activity of potential concern.”

Another SpaceX company, Starshield, is doing work that could be crucial to national security — but the project is classified. In 2021, the Department of Defense inked a $1.8 billion contract with SpaceX, Reuters reported this March. Little is known about the contract except that it was signed with DOD’s National Reconnaissance Office, a government agency that manages spy satellites.

SpaceX has meanwhile been responsible for 38 of the 44 attempted rocket launches in the United States this year, said Kimberly Burke, research analyst at the consulting firm Quilty Space.

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As a new space race takes shape, SpaceX is again poised to dominate in both public and private industry. Its Starship rocket, which is still being developed, is central to both NASA’s plans to send people back to the moon and the burgeoning new space economy.

“They are increasing the access to space; they are critical to NASA’s lunar missions,” said Burke. “In the space economy, everything hinges on [SpaceX’s forthcoming rocket] Starship.”

There may be one recent sign that other companies could come within striking distance of SpaceX: In May, Boeing plans to shuttle NASA astronauts to the International Space Station — the first time in several years an American company other than SpaceX has made the trip.

Maggie Severns and Jasmine Wright are reporters at NOTUS. Byron Tau contributed to this report.