It would be difficult to quantify just how many federal government or affiliated agencies regulate Elon Musk's massive business empire — most notably Tesla Inc.
As a publicly traded auto manufacturer, Tesla must answer to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Labor Relations Board, the IRS, the EPA and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Musk's SpaceX is intertwined with NASA, too. I'm sure there's plenty more.
So last week, during one of his running rants with journalists, President Donald Trump started talking about the "genius" Elon Musk. He credited Tesla's remarkable stock surge, putting its value north of $100 billion — more than Ford Motor Co. and General Motors combined. Incredible, right? Especially after some of the tumultuous controversies that have enveloped Musk and Tesla in recent years.
"I was worried about him, because he's one of our great geniuses, and we have to protect our genius," Trump said of Musk, according to Bloomberg's account. "You know, we have to protect Thomas Edison and we have to protect all of these people that came up with originally the light bulb and the wheel and all of these things."
"I mean, you go back a year and they were talking about the end of the company," Trump said. "And now all of a sudden they're talking about these great things."
Just to be clear, the president of the United States publicly said we have to protect Elon Musk.
So if you're the head of NHTSA, or the SEC, or OSHA, the IRS or any of the other alphabet soup of agencies that regulate Tesla, what do you do now? The president has said publicly he wants to protect Elon Musk and, by extension, Tesla.
The rest of the auto industry has grumbled for years about how Musk and Tesla seemingly get preferential treatment from government regulators, Wall Street and the media. More recently, there's also plenty of evidence Tesla is getting special treatment in China and perhaps Germany.
And last week even the state of Michigan — the home of the Detroit 3 — finally relented after three years of federal court litigation to a deal that allows Tesla to sell and service its cars in the state.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the impact of the president's words would be to replace Musk's name in these remarks with GM CEO Mary Barra or Ford CEO Jim Hackett.
"I was worried about Mary Barra, because she's one of our great geniuses, and we have to protect our genius." Or this: "I was worried about Jim Hackett, because he's one of our great geniuses, and we have to protect our genius."
Barra and Hackett may never be a "genius" in the president's eyes, but their companies have far more impact on the U.S. economy than Tesla. It's not even close. But if Trump's words take hold, Tesla will hold a tangible, material advantage over all its competitors in the U.S.
More than one member of Trump's cabinet must now decide if their agencies will disobey the president's wishes or do what myriad federal laws require: Regulate Tesla and Musk.