Top US CEOs ‘dumped’ President Trump over Virginia remarks before he fired them

Indra Nooyi – PepsiCo’s CEO of Indian descent – reportedly orchestrated the revolt, executing the final phase of an uncoordinated and unplanned process kicked off Monday through the resignation of Merck Pharma’s Kenneth Frazier.
US President Donald Trump addresses a press meet on the Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ rally at Manhattan, New York, on Tuesday.(Reuters photo)
US President Donald Trump addresses a press meet on the Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ rally at Manhattan, New York, on Tuesday.(Reuters photo)
Updated on Aug 17, 2017 11:39 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, Washington | ByYashwant Raj

US President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that he was shutting down his business advisory panels, comprising some of America’s top CEOs, instead of pressurising them presumably to relocate their manufacturing facilities back to America so as to create more jobs.

But reports say the CEOs revolted in the aftermath of the President’s remarks on the Charlottesville clashes, and shutting down the premier Strategy and Policy Forum – one of the two panels comprising the country’s top business leaders – was already decided through clandestine exchanges.

The New York Times said Indra Nooyi – PepsiCo’s CEO of Indian descent – orchestrated the revolt, executing the final phase of an uncoordinated and unplanned process kicked off Monday through the resignation of Merck Pharma’s Kenneth Frazier.

Frazier, who was upset by the President’s equivocation, said his decision was spurred by the “responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and racism”.

Resignations started streaming in Wednesday morning. While Campbell Soup and 3M CEOs Denise Morrison and Inge Thulin quit the policy forum, General Electric’s Jeffery Immelt walked out of the President’s Manufacturing Council. All of them voiced their disapproval of Trump’s response.

According to The Washington Post, JP Morgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon told employees in a note that the policy forum had decided to disband itself. “Constructive economic and regulatory policies are not enough, and will not matter if we do not address the divisions in our country. It is a leader’s role, in business or government, to bring people together – not tear them apart,” it read.

Having got wind of the revolt by mid-afternoon, Trump announced that he was shutting down the two panels. “Rather than putting pressure on the businesspeople of the Manufacturing Council & Strategy & Policy Forum, I am ending both. Thank you all!” he wrote on Twitter. There was no follow-up announcement from the White House.

Frazier, an African American, was the first CEO to resign from the President’s advisory panel. He announced his exit from the Manufacturing Council on Monday, a day after Trump sought to place blame for the clashes on “many sides”.

Trump’s first instinct, as always, was to punch back. Mocking the CEO in a Tweet, he said Frazier would now have all the time in the world to consider lowering drug prices. However, hours later, he delivered a speech that clearly denounced white hate groups, neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists.

While his words managed to satisfy a few allies and critics, it was too late for some CEOs. Under Armour’s Kevin Plank and Intel’s Brian Krzanich announced they were quitting the manufacturing council anyway, and cited the President’s equivocation on the issue as the reason.

Trump punched back, accusing them and any other CEO planning to leave of being “grandstanders” who can be replaced with little difficulty. A few hours later, he appeared before reporters in the gilded lobby of Trump Tower — his office, erstwhile campaign headquarters and home in New York City — and equated white hate-groups with counter-protesters before saying that “both sides” were to be blamed.

That was a stunning assertion, and the last straw for some CEOs already troubled by his position on the issue. They had joined the President’s council because, one, they supported his call to cut both taxes and regulations, and two, a seat at the table gave them a voice in policy-making and a chance to influence its outcome. However, as Dimon argued in the note to his employees, the larger purpose was to “address the divisions in our country”.

But, is it normal for top American CEOs to abandon the president so publicly?

“Social issues are intricately connected with economics,” Vijay Govindrajan, a leading business thinker and professor at Dartmouth College’s Tusk School, told Hindustan Times. “As a CEO, it is important to exercise moral leadership as morality is… critical to business success. American CEOs did the right thing by standing up against hatred, bigotry and racism.”

Other voices

Meanwhile, Trump’s remark continued to draw condemnation from important figures in America and abroad.

In London, British prime minister Theresa May offered a rare rebuke of Trump from so close a US ally.

“I see no equivalence between those who propound fascist views and those who oppose them, and I think it is important for all those in positions of responsibility to condemn far-right views wherever we hear them,” she told reporters.

Politicians in Germany, which has tough laws against hate speech as well as symbols linked to the Nazi regime that murdered six million Jews in the Holocaust, expressed shock at images of people carrying swastikas and chanting anti-Jewish slurs in Charlottesville. The country’s justice minister accused Trump of trivialising anti-Semitism and racism.

Though senior American military officers usually stay clear of politics, two more of the US military’s top officers weighed in on Wednesday without explicitly mentioning Trump. “The Army doesn’t tolerate racism, extremism or hatred in our ranks. It’s against our values and everything we’ve stood for since 1775,” US Army chief of staff General Mark Milley said on Twitter.

Air Force chief of staff General Dave Goldfein, in turn,‏ tweeted that he stands with fellow service chiefs in saying that “we’re always stronger together”.

Their comments followed similar ones from the top officers of the Navy and Marine Corps.

(With agency inputs)

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