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Bill and Melinda Gates Tackle ‘Tough Questions’ and Trump

Mr. and Ms. Gates are badgered about Mr. Trump so often that they made the topic part of the annual letter they published early Tuesday, a digest the couple releases about the philanthropic activities of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Believed to be the largest in the world, the foundation gave away more than $41 billion from its inception in 2000 through the end of 2016, now spending $4 billion to $5 billion a year to combat malaria, reduce poverty and improve education.

This is the 10th annual letter the Gateses have published, which they’re marking by answering 10 “tough questions” they frequently get. In addition to Mr. Trump, they address topics like why they team up with corporations and whether they’re imposing their values on other cultures.

The first Gates letter was inspired by the annual update the billionaire investor Warren E. Buffett writes to shareholders of his holding company, Berkshire Hathaway. In 2006, Mr. Buffett, a longtime friend of the couple’s, pledged the majority of his fortune to the Gates Foundation, where he is a trustee. In philanthropic circles, the annual Gates letter is read as avidly for tidbits about giving trends as Mr. Buffett’s letter is by investors.


Mr. Gates in Trump Tower a few weeks after the 2016 election. He said he was concerned about President Trump’s threats to cut foreign aid.

Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

“There have been some interesting tip-offs about where they’re heading or their perspectives on things,” said David Callahan, the founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy, a news site about charitable giving.

While the mood in many parts of the world seems to have darkened, Mr. and Ms. Gates say in their letter that they remain militantly optimistic about global progress.

“The headlines are filled with awful news,” they write in the letter. “Every day brings a different story of political division, violence or natural disaster. Despite the headlines, we see a world that’s getting better.”

They expanded on some of those themes and fielded questions about other topics in the recent interview. It was held at bgC3, a company that oversees many of Mr. Gates’s independent projects, including for-profit investments in clean energy.

Through her own private company, Pivotal Ventures, Ms. Gates has advocated for greater participation by women in STEM fields and other gender equity issues. Pivotal recently helped fund Aspect Ventures, the largest venture capital firm led by women. Not long ago, she moved Pivotal to its own private office near her husband’s.


In their foundation’s annual letter, their 10th, Mr. and Ms. Gates answered 10 “tough questions” they frequently get.

Kyle Johnson for The New York Times

As one of the founders of the modern tech industry, Mr. Gates is often looked to for technical answers. For instance, while running for president, Mr. Trump floated the idea of asking Mr. Gates to help close “that internet up in some way” to curb communications by terrorists online.

But when asked about the growing criticism that big technology companies like Facebook and Twitter have faced over their role in spreading misinformation, Mr. Gates said he hadn’t “seen great solutions,” though “I’m hopeful they’ll come.”

“The whole tech world should look at these criticisms, look at these effects, you know, try to make sure that without giving up what’s good about that, that we can reduce some of it,” he said.

When asked if the national reckoning over sexual harassment had affected her investments through Pivotal, Ms. Gates said that it hadn’t so far, but that it had encouraged her to use her voice to encourage more women to speak out.

“I want to make it O.K. for women to talk about their real experience,” she said. “I think it’s a long time coming that the sexual harassment stuff worldwide comes out.”


Mr. and Ms. Gates spoke with former President Barack Obama in September.

Yana Paskova/Getty Images

Ms. Gates has made family planning a focus of her work with the foundation. She said the Trump administration’s decision last year to expand a ban prohibiting American aid to any health organizations that provide or discuss abortion in family planning had caused “chaos” in the field — forcing them to stall their work as they figured out how to adhere to the rules.

And in their annual letter, Ms. Gates, 53, is blunt in her view of the way Mr. Trump communicates.

“I wish our president would treat people, and especially women, with more respect when he speaks and tweets,” she writes.

A White House spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Gates, 62, said he was particularly worried about Mr. Trump’s threats to cut foreign aid, which the Gates Foundation considers critical in the global battle against disease and poverty. He said that he was reassured that Congress had so far resisted the president’s demands to cut aid and that he and his wife had increased their visits to Republican members of Congress to stress the importance of maintaining the aid budget.

“Although we disagree with this administration more than the others we’ve met with, we believe it’s still important to work together whenever possible,” he writes in the letter. “We keep talking to them because if the U.S. cuts back on its investments abroad, people in other countries will die, and Americans will be worse off.”

One of the questions in the letter is about what happens when the two of them disagree. Mr. Gates wrote, “When I get really enthusiastic about something, I count on her to make sure I’m being realistic.”

Ms. Gates said they tended to avoid hashing out their disagreements in front of bigger groups at the foundation, saving them for private discussions, which they have on walks.

“Having a little bit of grist in the system is actually a good thing,” she said.

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