Notes on the Elon-Sergey Rift

Sergey Brin
Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP
Theodore Schleifer
July 27, 2022

I’ve gotten a lot of questions over the last 48 hours about the explosive story in the Wall Street Journal alleging that Elon Musk had an affair—or in peak WSJ-speak, a “liaison”—with Nicole Shanahan, who was then separating from Google co-founder Sergey Brin. (The two are now divorced.) Earlier this month, after all, Shanahan candidly offered me her first comments about the divorce, along with her post-nuptial philanthropic plans (if you missed it, catch up here). The alleged Elon relationship, obviously, never came up. 

Regardless, Elon has since called the Journal story “total BS,” while the paper said they “stand by our reporting.” There are two questions being debated in media and tech circles right now: First, who is right? And second, how is it that the dry, unofficial gazette of American capitalism is reporting on the sex lives of consensual adults? The story would have been unremarkable in other Murdoch papers, but struck some people I know as surprising in the context of the Journal. Usually the Times and Journal deliberately go out of their way when dealing with anything pertaining to sex. Even with #MeToo era coverage, where the intimate behavior was a core component of the news, they handled the sexual element with white gloves. That being said, I’ve argued divorces are often legitimately newsworthy events if they have public consequences, and understanding the factors that trigger a divorce can be too (see Melinda’s discomfort with Bill’s ties to Jeffrey Epstein, for instance).

Elon’s response isn’t quite a blanket denial, at least hyper-literally. He claimed on Twitter that “nothing romantic” happened with Shanahan, who he has only met a few times “with many other people.” (How “nothing romantic” would stand up to Ken Starr-style scrutiny is a story for another day and another private email.) Meanwhile, he also told Murdoch’s New York Post that he and Shanahan “were not romantically involved in any way.” (Agan, the hermeneutics…) That’s a strong rebuttal, but if you parse the language closely, he doesn’t specifically deny details of the alleged sexual interaction in Miami in December of 2019. I queried Elon for clarification on that but didn’t hear back.

Elon also has offered up a photograph of him at a party with Brin over the weekend, although the two fellow Burning Man attendees being a few yards from one another doesn’t exactly falsify the Journal’s claim that their relationship has been ruptured. Musk claims that the two remain friends, but as we all know from our own lives, different parties in a friendship can differ in their views of the strength of that alliance.

That being said, I can tell you that many media types over the last two days have been privately questioning whether the Journal, which I’m told had been pursuing the story for at least several weeks, goofed up in some way. It is possible, at least in theory, that Sergey’s side would want to leak this unflattering information to influence the divorce negotiations, in which Shanahan is reportedly challenging her prenup in order to seek more than $1 billion. There would at least be some logic to that, although Sergey is so, so private that I don’t think he would view the reputational cost as worth the incremental negotiating leverage. There are also questions about how much the “liaison” factored into their split, really. (The Journal notes that there were preexisting tensions involving the care of their child.) Silicon Valley veterans will recall that Sergey has his own history of infidelity, which famously played out in the press via a show-stopping 2013 scoop in Kara Swisher’s AllThingsD.

And while there is a fairly small universe of people who could say first-hand whether this alleged interaction between Musk and Shanahan happened, Musk told the Post that Sergey and Nicole had both told him that they had not participated or authorized people to speak for the story. Elon’s comments, in addition to being self-serving, don’t mean that unauthorized people or third-party informed sources didn’t talk to the Journal. As is almost always the case, more people know about secrets than you’d think. 

On the facts, perhaps the most important factor here is credibility. Both Journal reporters on the story are top-notch. In this age of histrionics, the paper’s business reporting is often hampered by a staid house style designed to unemotionally lay out complex fact sets. In this instance, that reputation is an enormous asset. Who are you going to trust when all is said and done: a media outlet that is known for being ultra-cautious, or a billionaire with an increasingly Warren Jeffs-style commitment to reproduction, who just broke his word to buy a company for $44 billion and is now being sued over it?

The harder question is whether the Journal was right to publish, and I suppose reasonable people can disagree. Brin is one of the world’s richest people, and he and Larry Page ultimately remain in control of Alphabet through their combined voting power. But Sergey is far from his days operating Google. Shanahan is a private person. And Musk, while the leader of some of the world’s most important companies, is an adult (though some tweets make you wonder). His decision to have a child with a subordinate, as he did at SpaceX, is a legitimate issue of corporate governance. His alleged decision to sleep with his longtime friend’s wife, no matter what it reveals about his character, is a personal one, and one that he insists (after publication) isn’t true. 

I can tell that the Journal labored at times to establish the corporate narrative for precisely this reason: The framing from the headline down is not about the alleged affair, per se, but about the deterioration of the friendship between Brin and Musk, which could, in theory, have tangible economic consequences. The story reports, for instance, that Brin had ordered his advisers to divest from Musk’s companies, although precise details are scarce. I don’t think the story convincingly landed that element of the piece—the consequences—and it’s crucial.

So where do things go from here? Shanahan on Tuesday took a major step toward legal action by hiring powerhouse litigator Bryan Freedman, who dropped the D-word in a media statement. “Make no mistake, any suggestion that Nicole had an affair with Elon Musk is not only an outright lie but also defamatory,” Freedman said. That’s standard fare for a lawyer of Freedman’s caliber, but also represents a specific legal threat. Defamation, after all, is a civil offense that, while difficult to prove, can open the door to extraordinary damages. (Every word matters here, so I reached out to Freedman to ask about his specific use of the word “affair,” and will update this story if I hear back.) Elon, for what it’s worth, on Wednesday said he wasn’t going to sue, but he hoped that Shanahan did.