WASHINGTON — Walmart, Merck, Intel, Under Armour. These are the sort of corporate titans that typically relish an opportunity to partner with the White House and lend a hand in guiding America’s economic policy. But the fallout over President Trump’s handling of a white supremacist riot in Charlottesville, Va., has opened a rare breach between prominent CEOs and a Republican president.
In the span of 36 hours, three chief executives from major US companies and one business association head resigned from one of Trump’s business advisory councils, citing concerns with the president’s flat-footed and lukewarm response to the violence.
Walmart’s chief executive publicly criticized Trump, but did not resign from another Trump economic advisory council.
The implication of the resignations was clear: The executives concluded that the values of the president of the United States were in conflict with those of their companies, their customers, and themselves. Continued affiliation with Trump posed a greater reputational risk than a highly public break.
It was another crack in a presidency that has endured unprecedented erosion in relationships that normally would be strong for a Republican president — particularly one who prides himself on his business-friendly agenda and accomplishments.
“Serving on presidential commissions has always come with calculated risk for CEOs. But today’s intensely polarized political environment, powered by social media, has taken that risk to a stratospheric level,” said Micho Spring, chair of the global corporate practice at Weber Shandwick, a communications firm.
Millennial employees and customers, in particular, demand that CEOs stand up for their corporate values and their employees “and speak out when those values are challenged by political leaders,” Spring said.
She pointed to the rising number of cases of CEOs speaking out on immigration, climate change, LGBTQ issues, and race.
“The violence in Charlottesville is a reminder that getting into the political arena may be more perilous than ever,’’ she said, “but remaining silent when societal values are challenged has become an equal risk.”
To be sure, the vast majority of CEOs on Trump’s advisory panels seem to be staying put —
“GE has no tolerance for hate, bigotry, or racism, and we strongly condemn the violent extremism in Charlottesville over the weekend,” the Boston-based company said in a statement that tried to walk a careful line. “It is important for GE to participate in the discussion on how to drive growth and productivity in the US,” it continued, explaining why chairman Jeff Immelt would remain on the manufacturing panel.
The CEOs who quit Trump’s jobs council — Kenneth C. Frazier, chief executive of the pharmaceutical giant Merck; Kevin Plank, founder and chief executive of the athletic wear maker Under Armour; and Brian Krzanich, CEO of chip manufacturer Intel — struck similar notes about their reaction to Charlottesville and the president’s response.
“I resigned because I want to make progress, while many in Washington seem more concerned with attacking anyone who disagrees with them,’’ Krzanich wrote in a late-night blog post Monday, in a thinly veiled dig at Trump.
On Tuesday, Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a partnership between US manufacturers and the United Steelworkers union, also jumped ship, simply explaining via Twitter that “it’s the right thing for me to do.”
The chief executive of Walmart, a brand closely connected to the deep-red rural areas that fueled Trump’s rise, joined in the criticism.
“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,” chief executive Doug McMillon wrote in a message to employees Monday night, as first reported by The New York Times.
McMillon, however, has not resigned from a presidential advisory council on economic development because he wanted to remain engaged in policy making.
Trump hasn’t made it any easier for the CEOs who are sticking with him.
The president attacked Merck’s Frazier, who is one of a very few African-Americans at the helm of a Fortune 500 company, shortly after the chief executive announced his departure Monday, denouncing what the president described as Merck’s “ripoff drug prices.’’
Trump undermined his own efforts to recover on Tuesday. He retweeted a cartoon image of a locomotive bearing the “Trump” name running over a CNN reporter — just days after a white nationalist allegedly used his car to kill one person and injure more than a dozen others in Charlottesville. He later deleted the tweet.
The president then issued a Twitter attack on the CEO defectors, calling them “grandstanders” who should not have had a seat on the council in the first place.
In the afternoon, at a Trump Tower news conference, he doubled down on his initial claim that there is “blame on both sides” for the Charlottesville violence and defended protesters who participated in the neo-Nazi demonstration.
After that display, Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, also quit the jobs advisory council.
“No adviser committed to the bipartisan American traditions of government can possibly believe he or she is being effective at this point. And all should feel ashamed for complicity in Trump’s words and deeds. I sometimes wonder how they face their children,” former US Treasury secretary and Harvard professor Lawrence Summers wrote in a scathing Washington Post column.
Nancy Koehn, a historian of leadership at Harvard Business School, said she has been surprised at how, with some exceptions, America’s corporate leaders “have been largely silent about the Trump presidency.”
Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord sparked a “surprisingly small response from corporate America,” given the investment so many had made in supporting it, she said.
Elon Musk of Tesla and Robert Iger of Walt Disney resigned from their positions on Trump advisory councils after he nixed the climate deal.
Koehn speculated that corporate reticence may be linked to the “unprecedented situation” these corporations find themselves in, facing a president who is emotional, erratic, and willing to lash out in personal terms.
To Bruce Haynes, a founding partner of Purple Strategies, a bipartisan Washington, D.C., communications and reputation management firm, the recent criticism from chief executives is symptomatic of a larger problem for the White House.
“If you’re a Republican, this is what is extraordinarily frustrating about this administration: Unemployment is at a 16-year low. The [stock] market is at an unprecedented high. All of the economic indicators are extraordinarily strong,” said Haynes, who has a background in Republican politics.
“But it’s these unforced errors — particularly in the communications space — that are holding back his ability to really bring people together around his economic policies.’’