Elon Musk is a lot of things: an engineer, a successful entrepreneur, clearly a “smart guy” by many measures, and yet there is one thing he is emphatically not—a great negotiator.
There is a popular image of Musk among his millions of fans of the brilliant tactician always playing 12-D chess, and always a few steps ahead of his competition. He can, in the minds of many, do no wrong. That myth shouldn’t have a leg to stand on after Tuesday’s announcement that Musk will buy Twitter at his originally-proposed price of $44 billion after a protracted series of events where he tried, very clearly, to wriggle out of the deal.
The deal is contingent on stopping an ongoing lawsuit over the sale, because Twitter alleged that Musk was obligated to buy the company at the original price of $54.20 a share in an offer (again, made by Musk) that gave him no real way out. And he did try just about everything—an offensive on multiple fronts that leveraged his own Twitter account and celebrity, as well as accusations of the platform being overrun with bots, despite fixing the bot problem being one of his stated reasons for buying the website. Two days from now, on Thursday, Musk was scheduled to sit down for a deposition with Twitter’s lawyers that promised to have all the charm of a root canal.
Facing an unwinnable lawsuit and the near-certainty of public embarrassment, Musk is now forced to follow through with the $44 billion purchase of a website that he seemingly offered to buy on a whim, carried away by the thought of becoming a hero in the culture wars around “free speech” online. Maybe Musk was never serious about the deal. It doesn’t matter. After trying very hard to get out of it, he must now pony up billions of dollars provided by himself and his financiers.
That Musk does not possess a brilliant tactical mind—with the usual caveat that SpaceX is indeed a very successful company that has developed great technology—is no big secret. That, too, was on display this week when he made an ill-advised tweet about ending the war in Ukraine by recognizing occupied and annexed Crimea as Russian that ended up becoming a talking point in the hands of Putin’s press spokesperson and Russian state media, despite his follow-up protestations of being “pro-Ukrainian.”
Indeed, tweeting things that land him in hot water is something of a hallmark of Musk’s, which is incredible to consider since he will now own the website after a long series of embarrassing strategic missteps.
Musk is powerful, wealthy, charismatic, and he is the CEO of a company that is now the U.S.’s only real shot at having a truly independent national space program amid deteriorating relations with Russia. For these reasons, it’s unlikely that the cult around him will tone it down even a little bit, and they are likely to see the Twitter acquisition in the light that he wants them to against all evidence: as a win for free speech by a powerful guy who is on their side. Brilliant, sir!
But what this whole sordid affair should do is finally, at long last, kill the idea that Elon Musk is really the smartest person in any given room, a genius negotiator, a brilliant strategian, and generally a person who epically owns anyone who tries to stop him. This time, as in many previous times and surely future ones, Elon Musk owns himself.
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