How Trump re-election could favor Elon Musk in regulatory fights

Few people have more riding on the 2024 presidential election than tech magnate Elon Musk. 

Musk, the world’s wealthiest person, is waging at least 11 separate regulatory or legal battles with the Biden administration or independent federal agencies related to his sprawling business empire, according to a tally by NBC News. If those fights extend into next year and former President Donald Trump returns to the White House, Musk would be likely to gain from relaxed enforcement, experts in regulatory law said in interviews. 

The 11 ongoing battles, which involve seven government entities, touch on a wide array of subjects, from unions to vehicle safety to privacy on the social media app X. 

“He would be in much less trouble in a Trump administration because Trump shares his hostility to regulation and regulators,” said Richard Pierce, a law professor at George Washington University specializing in government regulation. 

Trump has repeatedly said on the campaign trail that he wants to slash government regulations, and experts said in interviews that they expect he would appoint regulators who would bring a light touch to investigating Musk’s companies. 

“A second Trump term could very well shift the administrative and regulatory state in ways that would benefit Musk’s companies,” said Angela Aneiros, an assistant professor of law at Gonzaga University and a co-director of the university’s Center of Law, Ethics & Commerce. 

“A second term, if it happens, will result in federal agencies’ shifting their focus away from investigations into regulatory compliance issues,” she said. Instead, she said, the focus of a Trump return would most likely be different priorities, such as immigration enforcement. 

Representatives for Musk did not respond to a request for comment. His companies have denied wrongdoing, and his lawyers have accused regulators of targeting Musk for harassment.

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did President Joe Biden’s campaign.

Trump’s allies are already fighting alongside Musk in at least one regulatory clash. America First Legal, a group founded by Trump adviser Stephen Miller, sued the Federal Trade Commission in September alleging that it had been harassing Musk with an investigation of user privacy on X. Lawyers for Musk and X have used the same argument. 

Musk wears many hats. He is the CEO and largest shareholder in Tesla and SpaceX, the largest shareholder in X and the founder of Neuralink, a brain science startup, and of The Boring Co., a tunnel-building startup. 

Musk, 52, hasn’t said whom he supports for president, though he said in November that if the choices were Trump and Biden, “I would not vote for Biden.” 

“I’m not saying I’d vote for Trump,” he added at the DealBook Summit in New York.  

Musk has moved sharply to the right in his public statements, frequently raising alarms about illegal immigration, denouncing “woke” progressive movements, including those for transgender rights, and hosting online events with Republicans such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Musk has used his megaphone on X, with 174 million followers, to raise the profile of culture war issues, a habit that seems likely to help Trump. 

“Given the challenges he faces and his political predisposition today, he would clearly like to see a Trump administration in office,” said David Yoffie, a professor of international business administration at Harvard Business School. 

Yoffie said the breadth and number of Musk’s business interests put him in a unique position, where he’s exposed to many regulatory risks.

“The fact that he is involved in so many of these activities inevitably puts him at the center of attention, compared to any other CEO,” he said. 

Musk’s lawyers have said the White House should be able to get rid of federal regulators whom they accuse of harassing their client. In a court brief in November, they accused the Securities and Exchange Commission of “attempting to tarnish Mr. Musk’s record with baseless investigations” and said the SEC’s enforcement staff was in violation of the Constitution because it’s too difficult for the president to fire many of them. 

Musk and his fans often interpret government oversight of his projects as stifling innovation, although Tesla and SpaceX have also benefited from billions of dollars in government subsidies or contracts. 

“There needs [to be] comprehensive deregulation. Period,” Musk tweeted last year. 

The arguments put forward by Musk’s lawyers could have far-reaching effects. They have said in court filings that parts of three federal agencies — the SEC, the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, and the Justice Department — shouldn’t be allowed to operate as is because the way Congress set them up violated the Constitution. 

Musk and his companies are the subjects of at least 11 separate fights with the federal government, from regulatory lawsuits to criminal investigations:

  •  Tesla Autopilot: Tesla is under investigation by the Justice Department and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration over its Autopilot and Full Self-Driving features. Musk has defended the features, saying they make Teslas safer than manually driven cars. 
  • Tesla benefits: Federal prosecutors and the SEC are investigating whether Tesla improperly paid for a house for Musk, according to The Wall Street Journal. Tesla emphasized in a securities filing in October that it wasn’t aware of any finding of wrongdoing related to the investigation.
  • SpaceX hiring: The Justice Department is suing SpaceX, alleging it discriminated against asylum-seekers and refugees in hiring. SpaceX countersued, saying the regulatory system violates the Constitution, and it won a temporary stay in November. 
  • Alleged racial harassment: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is suing Tesla, alleging that it tolerated harassment of its Black employees at a California plant. Tesla has said the complaint lacks details to support its argument. 
  • Tesla union fight: Tesla is fighting the NLRB over a finding that Musk violated the rights of workers to form a union at the same plant in California. Musk had tweeted in 2018 that unionized workers would lose stock options. Tesla’s lawyers say his tweet was protected “employer speech.”  
  • SpaceX firings: SpaceX faces a complaint from one of the NLRB’s regional offices, alleging that it unlawfully fired eight workers for circulating a letter calling Musk a “distraction and embarrassment.” SpaceX responded with a lawsuit saying the structure of the NLRB is unconstitutional. 
  • X employee firing: An NLRB regional official charged in October that X broke the law in firing an employee who criticized X’s return-to-office policy. X hasn’t commented on the matter. 
  • Twitter acquisition fallout: The SEC is investigating whether Musk or anyone else committed securities fraud in 2022 as he accumulated stock in Twitter before he acquired the company. A magistrate ruled that Musk must testify in the case. Musk’s lawyers have called the investigation unlawful. 
  • “Funding secured”: The SEC is seeking to preserve a provision in a 2018 settlement agreement barring Musk from tweeting about certain subjects without the approval of a securities lawyer. The provision stemmed from Musk’s “funding secured” tweets about taking Tesla private. His lawyers have asked the Supreme Court to intervene. 
  • Privacy on X: The FTC is investigating whether X is complying with the terms of a $150 million privacy settlement from May 2022, before Musk bought it. Musk’s lawyers allege that the FTC has stepped up its demands and that, like the SEC, the FTC is harassing their client. In November, a judge denied a request from X to modify or terminate the settlement. 
  • Satellite internet: The Federal Communications Commission voted in December to deny an award of $886 million to SpaceX’s Starlink for rural broadband service, even though Starlink won a 2020 auction process. SpaceX called the decision indefensible. 

A second Trump administration could give Musk some relief, experts said. 

Stephen Diamond, an associate professor of law at Santa Clara University in California, said Trump’s political movement is generally on the same page as Musk when it comes to regulatory action. Now, they’re all feeling emboldened to diminish federal agencies, he said. 

New Deal-era bodies like the NLRB have “always rankled a certain segment of American business. They vociferously opposed the creation of these agencies in the 1930s, and they have looked for opportunities to weaken these agencies,” he said. 

“Largely Musk is in that tradition, but he’s pushing it a little bit further,” he said. 

Musk’s net worth was about $213 billion as of Monday, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. 

Some of Musk’s fans have noted the volume of investigations and sometimes suggested nefarious intentions. “Does the Biden Administration have it in for Elon Musk?” asked The Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial board in September. The board said Musk had become “Progressive Enemy No. 1.” 

Biden and Musk have a famously frosty relationship, based partly on their different views about labor unions. After Musk bought Twitter in late 2022, Biden said his relationships with other countries are “worthy of being looked at.” 

Brendan Carr, a Trump-appointed FCC commissioner, said on X that Biden’s comment gave “administrative agencies a green light to go after Musk.” 

Musk quietly visited the White House in September, in his first meeting there since Biden took office. He has continued to say, though, that the Biden administration is giving him the cold shoulder.