Some of America’s top CEOs were preparing to issue a statement criticizing the president — so he effectively fired them from a White House council first.
President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced he was ending two business advisory councils amid a stampede of defections and after one of the groups had decided to disband over the president’s much-criticized response to the weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, Va.
A person close to Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum said the group had already told the White House it had resolved to disband and condemn the president’s Tuesday claims that “both sides” were responsible for violence at a white supremacist and neo-Nazi gathering and that some “very fine people” were among the marchers defending a Confederate statue.
The group in a statement presented the decision as mutual with Trump, though EY CEO Mark Weinberger tweeted Wednesday that “we made the right call.” Members of the separate Manufacturing Council — which had already lost eight members this week — were due to hold their own call Wednesday.
“Rather than putting pressure on the businesspeople of the Manufacturing Council & Strategy & Policy Forum, I am ending both. Thank you all!” Trump wrote on Twitter Wednesday afternoon, ending the debate.
The split likely won’t change Trump’s agenda — the long-time real estate developer still intends to slash corporate taxes and regulations. And the White House said a separate group of government officials called the American Technology Council, which met with top Sillicon Valley executives and Trump in June, will keep working. Still, the break-up of the two high-profile CEO groups shows increasing pressure on business leaders to distance themselves from the White House and could hurt Trump’s standing with the pro-business, establishment wing of voters and donors in the Republican Party.
“There is no room for equivocation here: the evil on display by these perpetrators of hate should be condemned and has no place in a country that draws strength from our diversity and humanity,” JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon said in a statement Wednesday after Trump disbanded the Strategic and Policy Forum to which he belonged. Dimon had weighed in on the events in Charlottesville over the weekend but had not criticized the president directly.
“It is a leader’s role, in business or government, to bring people together, not tear them apart,” he said.
Executives historically have clamored to belong to White House business councils, which give them an opportunity to pitch the president behind closed doors.
Merck’s Kenneth Frazier — the first CEO to announce he was leaving Trump’s manufacturing council this week — repeatedly pressed Trump in private on reforming tax laws. Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris was initially granted a private sit-down with EPA head Scott Pruitt as the agency weighed a key regulation, though the meeting was trimmed down to a brief greeting.
In return, the executives served as surrogates for a White House trying to sell its pro-business message. Council members regularly flanked the president at a series of announcements and executive order signings. Executives like Campbell’s Soup CEO Denise Morrison told reporters they were optimistic about Trump’s effect on the economy. Dow donated about $1 million for the president’s inauguration.
The corporate backlash started Monday with Merck’s Frazier — the only African-American CEO on Trump’s manufacturing council — who said he was quitting “to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.” Within a day, the CEOs of Under Armour and Intel said they were leaving too.
The president on Tuesday called them “grandstanders” on Twitter and lashed out at Merck specifically. He claimed the defections wouldn’t hurt him.
“For every CEO that drops out of the Manufacturing Council, I have many to take their place,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday morning. However, no other CEOs publicly stepped forward to join the council, and five more leaders said they were leaving.
On Tuesday — before Trump’s news conference but after he took heat Saturday for blaming “many sides” for violence in Charlottesville — Morrison of Campbell’s said she planned to remain on the manufacturing council. Social media campaigns in response called the company a “Soup Nazi” in reference to the television show Seinfeld; another circulated altered photos of fake Campbell’s products called “Cream of Complicity” and “Swastika Soup.”
On Wednesday, Morrison said she couldn’t serve on the council any longer. “Racism and murder are unequivocally reprehensible and are not morally equivalent to anything else that happened in Charlottesville,” Morrison said in a statement.
Others also flipped their stances. “The President’s most recent statements equating those who are motivated by race-based hate with those who stand up against hatred is unacceptable and has changed our decision to participate in the White House Manufacturing Advisory Council,” Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky said on Wednesday — less than 24 hours after telling reporters he planned to stay on the council so J&J would have a voice in high-level discussions.
Activists said the overnight campaigns and threats of boycotts motivated executives. Progressive groups have also pushed payment processing companies to cut ties with hate groups, collecting thousands of signatures on petitions, though Discover, Visa and Mastercard told POLITICO they had limited ability to force banks to cut off merchants conducting legal businesses.
“The collapse of the CEO councils is not due to an outbreak of conscience,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “Instead, it is public pressure — pressure for the CEOs to evidence a measure of decency — that is driving them off the councils. That’s not exactly the most inspiring example of moral leadership. No profiles in courage here.”
Silicon Valley executives such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Apple’s Tim Cook also met with Trump in June through the administration’s American Technology Council, which is technically made up of government employees. Still, activists like Weissman are calling on the affiliated executives to condemn Trump’s comments too.
Until this week, Trump had spent months praising the same executives who are now rebuking him.
“I want to thank these great business leaders,” Trump said in February, when Merck’s Frazier, J&J’s Gorsky, Campbell’s Morrison and other CEO advisers joined him for a signing ceremony on an executive order on regulatory reform. “They’re helping us sort out what’s going on, because … it’s been disastrous for business. This is going to be a place for business to do well and to thrive.”