The latest CEO departures from Trump business council show how difficult it is to separate business from politics

Kenneth C. Frazier, chief executive of Merck, is the latest CEO to resign from one of the president’s advisory councils. Here are six CEOs who have distanced themselves from the president. (Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

Under Armour’s Kevin Plank and Intel’s Brian Krzanich are the latest CEOs to ditch President Trump’s American Manufacturing Council after Trump’s waffling on condemning the hate groups that sparked deadly violence in Charlottesville over the weekend. Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier was the first to go, citing the need for American leaders to clearly reject “expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy.”

Krzanich echoed Frazier’s statements and called on American leaders “to condemn the white supremacists and their ilk who marched and committed violence,” before adding that he is not a politician. But Plank took a much softer approach in distancing himself from the whole political mess by saying that Under Armour “engages in innovation and sports, not politics.” The latest defector, Alliance for American Manufacturing President Scott Paul, left the council with the mildest statement. Paul wrote Tuesday afternoon on Twitter:

Krzanich, Plank and Frazier offered varying degrees of critique in their statements, and none of them mentioned the president by name. Additionally, Krzanich and Plank’s insistence that they are apolitical business executives seems disingenuous. After all, the CEOs waded into the murky political waters by joining the council last winter. By then, Trump was already embroiled in controversy and had hesitated during his campaign to denounce the hate groups that supported him. The CEOs stayed on the council after several others jumped ship in the wake of Trump’s Muslim travel ban and again when he pulled out of the Paris climate agreement.

Frazier, who offered the most forceful critique of Trump’s handling of the events in Charlottesville, was swiftly rebuked by the president. Less than an hour after Frazier, who is African American, resigned from the council, Trump lambasted him in a tweet.

A few hours later, Trump attacked Frazier again.

Trump has yet to attack Krzanich and Plank. It is possible that the two CEOs took note of Trump’s ire toward Frazier when drafting their statements and held back on criticizing the president directly. It is not hard to believe that the CEOs fear the venom of the president. Trump has openly bullied members of his own party, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), for not living up to his expectations.

Trump’s inclination toward the public shaming of those who disappoint him seems to have had a chilling effect on business leaders. When the New York Times’s Andrew Ross Sorkin asked one unnamed chief executive why he had not spoken out in support of Frazier and his stance on the president, the executive said: “Just look at what he did to Ken. I’m not sticking my head up.”

After Trump’s tweets, several other executives came to Frazier’s defense, expressing support for his decision to leave the council. Unilever CEO Paul Polman praised Frazier for displaying “strong leadership” and positive “moral values.”

Others like Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, also praised Frazier. “I’m thankful we have business leaders such as Ken to remind America of its better angels,” Whitman wrote on LinkedIn. “Americans expect their political leaders to denounce white supremacists by name. Hate must not be given refuge in America.”

In February, Plank got a taste of how public statements about the president draw controversy. Under Armour boasts a diverse roster of spokesmen, including high-profile black athletes: 2015 MVP and Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, and the first black principal ballerina for the American Ballet Theatre, Misty Copeland. After Plank called Trump a “real asset” to the nation when he joined the council, both Curry and Copeland spoke out against Plank’s praise. Copeland released a statement on Instagram disagreeing with Plank’s display of support for Trump.

Certainly Plank and Krzanich are not politicians in that they do not hold public office. But like Plank, Krzanich was very enthusiastic to work with Trump. In February, the Intel executive met with Trump at the White House. The two discussed politics, policy and business issues, Krzanich told CNBC. 

“It was a good chance to sit down and talk about everything from immigration, tax reform, our position on diversity and women and underrepresented minorities in the workplace. All of those areas we were able to talk to both the president but also really substantive time with his staff,” Krzanich told CNBC.

After the meeting, Krzanich announced that Intel would invest in a new factory in Arizona. Bringing manufacturing back to the United States was a major campaign promise for Trump. In a statement to employees, Krzanich justified the new plant and his decision to make the announcement at the White House, noting that the current tax system puts U.S. manufacturers at a disadvantage.

“That’s why we support the Administration’s policies to level the global playing field and make U.S. manufacturing competitive worldwide through new regulatory standards and investment policies,” he wrote. “Government policies play a critical role in enabling and sustaining American-driven innovation.”

For Krzanich and Intel, business and politics were intertwined.

Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris accords was another pivotal moment for the business executives. Leaders from outside the council penned an open letter to the president urging him not to withdraw. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, resigned from the White House business advisory and manufacturing councils, and Robert Iger, CEO of Disney, resigned from the business council, citing their views on climate change.

In June, Washington Post economic columnist Steven Perlstein argued it was time for the CEOs on the business council to leave Trump. Though his post was written months before the violence in Charlottesville, Perlstein foreshadowed what the CEOs might be weighing now. “The business community will want to be — and to be seen — on the right side of history” whenever Trump’s tenure is up, he wrote.

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