CEOs face tough decisions on Trump

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Business leaders are struggling over what kind of ties to keep with President Trump as the controversy surrounding his response to the violence in Charlottesville, Va., shows no signs of ending.

Some CEOS have headed for the exits, resigning from advisory panels such as the American Manufacturing Council and the economic Strategy and Policy Forum in order to distance themselves from Trump.

Other CEOs said their leaders would remain on his advisory panels in order to have a say, but starkly worded statements suggested the discomfort the president is causing.

{mosads}“As we watched the events and the response from President Trump over the weekend, we too felt that he missed a critical opportunity to help bring our country together by unequivocally rejecting the appalling actions of white supremacists,” Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon wrote in an internal memo. 

Trump might have given new life to the exodus of business leaders with his latest remarks on Tuesday, when he again blamed “both sides” for the violence over the weekend in Charlottesville, where white supremacists rallied there clashed repeatedly with counterprotesters.

One died and 19 were injured when a car was driven into a group of counterprotesters. The alleged driver of the car, James Alex Fields Jr., who came from Ohio to attend the white supremacist rally, was arrested and charged with second-degree murder.

The remarks were a shock to many, as they were a pivot from Trump’s comments on Monday, when he singled out white supremacist groups for condemnation.

Not long after the new remarks, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, a potential ally for the president on trade, announced he and another leader of his labor coalition would leave an economic advisory board.

“I cannot sit on a council for a President that tolerates bigotry and domestic terrorism; I resign, effective immediately,” Trumka Tweeted Tuesday evening.

Thus far, eight CEOs from major companies and associations have dropped their participation from two of Trump’s special advisory councils. 

A few left before the Charlottesville controversy, highlighting how business leaders for months have had to walk a tightrope with Trump.

Uber’s then-CEO Travis Kalenick quit an advisory board following Trump’s travel ban, while Tesla’s Elon Musk and Disney’s Bob Iger left Trump after he announced the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.

The five most recent defections — Merck & Co. CEO Kenneth Frazier, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, Under Armour’s Kevin Plank, Alliance for American Manufacturing President Scott Paul and Trumka — resulted from the Charlottesville controversy.

Liberal groups are upping the pressure on business leaders, seeking to divide them from Trump.

The Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, called on activists to pressure remaining CEOs on Trump’s councils to step down with a #QuitTheCouncil social media campaign.

Deciding whether to stay or go is a dilemma for business leaders caught between their desire to have a voice on policy and their support for values they espouse to their employees and consumers.

Trump is expected to push for tax reform and a possible infrastructure plan this fall and continues work on a slew of regulations.

McMillon, the Wal-Mart CEO, did not step down from Trump’s Strategy and Policy Forum, insisted that staying in a position of influence was important.

“We believe we should stay engaged to try to influence decisions in a positive way and help bring people together,” he wrote in the internal memo explaining his rationale.

Alex Gorsky, chairman and CEO of Johnson & Johnson, said that while he respected the decisions of manufacturing council members who decided to leave, “Johnson & Johnson has a responsibility to remain engaged, not as a way to support any specific political agenda, but as a way to represent the values of Our Credo as crucial public policy is discussed and developed.”

A spokesman for Whirlpool Corp. said that CEO Jeff Fettig “will continue on the Manufacturing Jobs Initiative to represent our industry, our 15,000 U.S. workers, and to provide input and advice on ways to create jobs and strengthen U.S. manufacturing competitiveness.” 

A spokesman for Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg simply said: “He plans to remain on the council.”

Not only do business leaders want to have a say in policy discussions, but they also have to contend with the prospect of Trump’s fury if they turn against him.

After Merck’s Frazier quit the Manufacturing council, Trump bashed him on Twitter taunting him to “LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES.”

He said those leaving his councils were replaceable and accused them of being embarrassed because they do not manufacture in the United States.

“Some of the folks that will leave, they’ll leave out of embarrassment, because they make their products outside,” Trump said Tuesday.

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