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Foxconn chairman’s Trump visit shows the political tangle of its Wisconsin project

Now there are two presidential campaigns tied to whatever Foxconn is doing

Photo by Joshua Lott for The Verge

Foxconn’s founder and chairman Terry Gou went on a quick US tour this week, first stopping at the White House on Wednesday to meet with President Trump, and then dropping by the Milwaukee airport on Thursday to meet with Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers.

The purpose of the visit appears to be reassuring everyone that the company’s Wisconsin project is moving forward — that despite the company’s changing plans and lack of progress, it will eventually hire the thousands of people and build the manufacturing hub it promised in 2017 when Wisconsin offered it $4.5 billion in subsidies.

Gou came bearing baseball caps decorated with American and Taiwanese flags and “Make America Great Again” emblazoned on the bill. For his patriotic demonstration, Trump gave him a signed coaster. Afterward, Gou told Taiwanese media that work on the promised factory had only been halted due to cold weather and would now resume. (The state continued to build infrastructure for the factory through the winter.) White House press secretary Sarah Sanders confirmed the visit and released a confident statement about the project: “Mr. Gou is spending a lot of money in Wisconsin and soon will announce even more investment there,” she wrote.

Gou, his special assistant Louis Woo, and other Foxconn officials have made similar tours of reassurance over the project’s troubled year and a half, but this one had the added dimension of Gou now running for president in Taiwan. Though Gou has yet to be officially nominated, the Nikkei Asian Review notes that the meeting marks the first time a Taiwanese presidential hopeful met with a US president in the Oval Office since the US cut diplomatic ties in 1979. While Sanders said support for Gou’s campaign was not discussed and that the Foxconn founder “is just a great friend,” Gou said he told Trump that he would not be a “trouble maker” if elected to office, and that he would strengthen economic ties with the US. Now there are two presidential campaigns tied to whatever Foxconn is doing in Wisconsin.

If Foxconn’s Wisconsin project gets Gou meetings in the Oval Office, its bearing on Trump’s reelection campaign is more ambiguous. Trump touted the project often early on, calling it the “eighth wonder of the world” and a step toward bringing manufacturing back to the US, but he didn’t mention Foxconn once during a rally last Saturday in Green Bay, even as a company executive watched from the stands. There’s still no word on what’s happening with the Foxconn “innovation center” in downtown Green Bay, which was supposed to open earlier this year and house researchers working on the company’s much-hyped “AI 8K+5G ecosystem,” but which was full of vacant floors and unrelated businesses when The Verge visited in March. (It’s now been three weeks since Foxconn promised a correction about its innovation centers being empty; The Wall Street Journal confirmed this week that the buildings are still empty.)

As for what’s happening with the factory in Mount Pleasant, The Wall Street Journal’s Valerie Bauerlein reports that the project still appears stalled. The company had spent only $99 million, 1 percent of its promised investment, by the end of last year. Last month, the Mount Pleasant Village Board voted to lease back almost a thousand acres it had acquired for Foxconn to a farmer.

Bloomberg’s Austin Carr, meanwhile, obtained documents showing that most of Foxconn’s vendors for its electronics manufacturing operation are from out of state or overseas, undermining claims made by Trump and other politicians that the project would transform local businesses.

The Gou visit came about two weeks after Governor Evers said it was “unrealistic” that Foxconn would create 13,000 jobs in the state and that the company had expressed interest in altering its contract. But his first meeting with Gou seems to have left him somewhat reassured.

“The fact that I said that they may not have 13,000 (jobs), it could be less, it could be more, to me it doesn’t matter,” Evers told the editorial boards of two local papers. “I’m not doubting their word, I’m just saying that we want as much clarity as we can going forward, and we talked about what they’re doing right now as far as building. They’re hoping to have the new plant up and running as soon as possible.”

According to Foxconn’s latest plans, that new plant is to be a Gen 6 producing small LCD screens and employing 1,500 people. Foxconn’s initial plan, the one that prompted Wisconsin to offer the company the largest subsidy package ever given to a foreign manufacturer, was for a Gen 10.5 plant employing more than 10,000 people. It’s unclear how Foxconn plans to make up that gap, but the company’s most immediate deadline is more attainable: it needs to hire 520 people by the end of the year to start receiving money from the state.

While Gou’s visit shed little light on the Foxconn project itself, it did underscore the political tangle that surrounds it. Not only does the project continue to earn the company Trump’s goodwill during the trade war, it also gets Gou White House visits as he eyes a presidential run in Taiwan. For Trump, it’s more important than ever that the project not be seen as a total failure as the 2020 election nears. And then there’s Evers, who is stuck trying to mitigate the political and financial risks of the project. Critical of the deal during the campaign, he’s now in the position of supporting it publicly lest he give Foxconn cause to pull back and state Republicans reason to blame him for it. Skeptical support is a difficult balance to strike, and for now he seems to have swung back to the optimistic side of the spectrum, even if it’s no clearer what exactly he is supporting.