American corporate titans used a collegial dinner with President Donald Trump on Tuesday to press him on to ease immigration restrictions, according to multiple attendees.
And at least during the dinner, it seemed like their coaxing had an effect. After several of the CEOs urged Trump to make it easier to allow “talented” individuals from other countries to come work at their companies in the US, the President said he would consider taking action to assuage their concerns via executive order.
But reached the next morning about the President’s comments, a White House official said “no imminent action” is planned to address the CEOs concerns, though the official noted “the President has been clear that he wants a merit-based immigration system to allow the best and the brightest from around the world to immigrate to this country.”
Even as he appeared to agree with the executives that more high-skilled immigrants should be allowed to remain in the country, Trump expressed concern that some foreign students were acting as foreign agents, particularly from China, according to one of the attendees. Trump made the remark as part of a long screed on Beijing’s trade practices.
Trump has said he wants to move the US toward a merit-based immigration system that would allow more high-skilled immigrants to move to the US, but his administration has also taken actions to restrict immigration and tighten requirements, including among that high-skilled population. High-skilled workers applying for H1-B visas saw petition denials and requests for evidence increase last year, for example, following a Trump administration policy change, according to a recent study by the National Foundation for American Policy.
The episode, which attendees said proceeded in a friendly manner during a private question-and-answer portion of the dinner, came toward the end of an evening marked by lively discussion of the US economy and the President’s views on trade.
Gathered in an airy dining room with views of Trump’s expansive golf course, the executives seemed to put Trump at ease, according to one person who attended. Before plates of lobster and beef tenderloin were served, Trump delivered remarks from a podium as the sun set.
“I’m meeting tonight with some of the top business leaders in the world,” he said. “You talk about business, this is the group. And we’re so honored to have you. And we’re gonna be discussing later on some of the ideas you may have to, as the expression goes, make America great again.”
Seated at a round table of 10, Trump lavished praise on outgoing PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, who sat to first lady Melania Trump’s left.
Trump introduced Nooyi saying she “always top of list of most powerful women in the world” – and joked to the first lady, “no, Melania, I’m not talking about you.”
Nooyi’s biography is itself evidence of the power of allowing US-educated immigrants to remain working in the country. Born and raised in India, Nooyi enrolled at the Yale School of Management, became a naturalized US citizen and rose to the highest echelons of American corporate life.
Some CEOs also used the dinner as an opportunity to raise their concerns with the President about the effect of his budding trade war with major US trading partners.
“Some CEOs said they’d like to get a resolution on it sooner than later,” one CEO who attended the dinner told CNN.
Trump, according to that CEO, told the business leaders that he believes China is anxious to make a deal to relieve the mounting exchange of tariffs between the two countries.
Trump also said he is still working toward a resolution to renegotiate NAFTA, the free trade deal between the US, Canada and Mexico. But he once again cast aspersions on Canada, saying that the United States’ northern neighbor was being very difficult in the negotiation process, while Mexico has been more cooperative.
One CEO who attended the dinner said Trump – who has recently privately expressed frustration with the special counsel’s investigation – did not address the investigation and appeared to be in good spirits.
“It was a great dinner,” the executive said. “He was on his mark.”