Business leaders generally hate politics. Taking a public stance on controversial issues is bound to alienate someone, and if you run a business, that means losing customers. Better to just keep quiet.
That makes it all the more remarkable that President Trump’s combative rhetoric on the racially charged violence in Charlottesville has generated a small revolt among chief executives, who began to bolt from Trump’s advisory councils before he shut them down on August 16. But a few CEOs defied Trump when the corporate herd still had a berth at the White House — defections that now seem to have been forebodings of the broader rift coming.
Leading the way
Back in February, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick quit a Trump advisory council in reaction to Trump’s effort to ban immigrants from seven Muslim countries. Uber had come under fire for supposedly profiting when taxi drivers stopped work to protest Trump’s plan, which put Kalanick in a trickier position on the issue than most CEOs. Kalanick, of course, quit as Uber CEO in June, following a string of other controversies.
When Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement in June, Tesla’s Elon Musk and Disney’s Robert Iger resigned from a White House council. For Musk, ditching Trump was arguably a shrewd business move, since Tesla’s electric cars appeal to environmentally conscious consumers. Iger, a prominent donor to Democratic politicians who may run for office himself someday, called his resignation a “matter of principle.”
Merck CEO Ken Frazier was the first to resign after the violence in Charlottesville, saying it was a “matter of personal conscience.” Kevin Plank of UnderArmour and Brian Krzanich of Intel followed, prompting Trump to disband the largely symbolic councils before other members stampeded for the exit. Some CEOs vacillated as Trump stoked the controversy with follow-on remarks, and public opinion hardened. Alex Gorsky of Johnson & Johnson at first said he would stay on a council to “remain engaged,” but then changed his mind and quit — moments after Trump decided to kill the panels outright.
A few other CEOs have tried to have it both ways, by publicly criticizing Trump policies while retaining access to the White House. The debut tweet of Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, in June, criticized Trump’s decision to leave the Paris accord. BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, another prominent Democratic donor, has expressed worry about Trump’s personality while also saying it’s important for him to “have a voice at the table.” And Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase has repeatedly criticized Trump’s approach to immigration, trade and other issues, while remaining an official Trump advisor. Until now.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman