Column: Courageous or craven? Ranking the CEOs by how long it took them to bail on Trump
President Trump’s announcement Wednesday that he was dissolving his two major councils of business leaders undoubtedly brought a sense of relief to many of the member CEOs — they wouldn’t have to stick their necks out to resign publicly, thereby risking an angry response from the Tweeter-in-Chief.
Those who waited until then to publicly declare their dismay at Trump’s remarks Tuesday expressing sympathy and support for the Nazis and white supremacists who marched through Charlottesville, Va., chanting anti-Semitic and racist slogans, don’t deserve much credit. But those who distanced themselves from Trump earlier, some even before Charlottesville, do. It’s proper to note that Trump’s remarks about Charlottesville weren’t the only opportunity for business leaders to show moral courage. Before then, there were his policies and statements on immigration, climate change, NATO and healthcare.
Among business leaders, as among people in all walks of life, one finds leaders, followers, those who wait to see which way the wind blows before acting and those who remind us of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Duke of Plaza-Toro, who “led his regiment from behind.”
Immigration and openness to refugees is an important part of our country’s success.
Travis Kalanick’s early and uncompromising condemnation of Trump policy
Through our history, America’s business leaders haven’t consistently stood up against bigotry and inequality. But rarely have they staked a claim to moral authority as insistently as they do today — that claim is part of the “corporate principles” one can find on virtually every company website. Seldom has it been as important as it is now for them to back up their PR with action, considering moral authority has almost vanished in Washington. So let’s see how they’ve done.
Here’s a ranking of the members of Trump’s Manufacturing Jobs Initiative and Strategic and Policy Forum, based on when they bailed out and why.
The pioneers (resigned before Charlottesville)
Travis Kalanick, Uber: Kalanick, who since has been deposed as Uber’s CEO, resigned from the strategic panel on Feb. 2, even before it met. He was responding to Trump’s travel ban, saying, “Immigration and openness to refugees is an important part of our country’s success and quite honestly to Uber’s.” Kalanick had come under fire from some in the Silicon Valley community for joining Trump’s panel in the first place, but he shouldn’t be marked down just because he accurately read the mood of his constituency. Plenty of politicians aren’t that responsive to theirs.
Elon Musk, Tesla/SpaceX: Musk resigned from both the strategic and jobs panels on June 1 over Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement. “Climate change is real,” he tweeted. “Leaving Paris is not good for America or the world.”
Kenneth Frazier, Merck & Co.: Frazier quit the jobs panel on Monday morning after Trump’s first inadequate statement on Charlottesville. “As CEO of Merck and as a matter of personal conscience,” he said in a tweeted statement, “I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.” One of only four black CEOs of a Fortune 500 company, Frazier’s resignation paved the way for others to leave.
The first wave
Kevin Plank, Under Armour: Plank, who had come under fire weeks earlier for statements supporting Trump, followed Frazier off the jobs panel by several hours, though his resignation statement was bland: “Under Armour engages in innovation and sports, not politics,” he said.
Brian Krzanich, Intel: Krzanich quit the jobs panel the same day, citing “the serious harm our divided political climate is causing to critical issues.”
Way too late
Richard Trumka and Thea Lee, AFL-CIO: The only representatives of labor on the two panels dithered inexcusably before resigning Tuesday. On Monday, following Frazier’s resignation, the AFL-CIO said it was “assessing” its continued participation on the jobs panel, but only made its decision following Trump’s meltdown news conference, in which he doubled down Tuesday on his support for the white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville. “We cannot sit on a council for a President who tolerates bigotry and domestic terrorism,” the union said. But organized labor had plenty of evidence of Trump’s hostility to its cause long before then, including the disdain he showed by his two non-labor nominations as secretary of Labor, and actions taken to delay or eviscerate Obama-era initiatives, including one expanding eligibility for overtime pay. Trumka and Lee should have resigned from the panel months earlier.
The second wave
Scott Paul, Alliance for American Manufacturing: Paul, president of a partnership between the United Steelworkers Union and manufacturing industries, resigned from the jobs panel Tuesday after Trump’s news conference. He subsequently tweeted a quote from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Larry Fink, BlackRock: The head of the money management firm resigned from the strategic panel after the Trump news conference, stating, “After the last few days, I concluded that I could no longer in good conscience participate in the Forum.”
Strong words (but only after seeing how the wind was blowing)
On Wednesday, Trump dissolved the CEO panels, and the floodgates opened. Several CEOs issued strong statements condemning racism and bigotry, begging the question of why they hadn’t acted earlier. No points for these CEOs.
Greg Hayes, United Technologies: Hayes resigned from the jobs panel after Trump announced its dissolution, which leaves unclear what he was resigning from. “The values that are the cornerstone of our culture: tolerance, diversity, empathy and trust, must be reaffirmed by our actions every day,” Hayes said, four days after Trump’s first statements about Charlottesville placed those values in doubt.
Jeffrey Immelt, General Electric: Immelt resigned from the jobs council Wednesday, two days after saying he would stay on because “it is important for GE to participate in the discussion on how to drive growth and productivity in the U.S.” Immelt evidently decided that Trump’s statements on Wednesday were beyond the pale. He called them “deeply troubling … GE has no tolerance for hate, bigotry, racism, and the white supremacist extremism that the country witnessed in Charlottesville last weekend.”
Alex Gorsky, Johnson & Johnson: Gorsky wanted the public to know that his decision to quit the jobs council, which was announced after Trump’s dissolution of the panel, preceded the dissolution. We’ll have to take him at his word.
Virginia Rometty, IBM: Rometty told IBM personnel in a statement that the strategic panel, of which she was a member, had decided itself to disband even before Trump dissolved it, which appears to be the case. She said she had joined the panel because “we have always believed that dialogue is critical to progress … but this group can no longer serve the purpose for which it was formed.” Why it took so long to come to that conclusion is unclear; the panel hadn’t met since its formation — and until the conference call Wednesday at which its members agreed to disband.
Wal-Mart tries a straddle, gets blindsided by Trump
Doug McMillon, Wal-Mart: A member of Trump’s strategic panel, McMillon took the opportunity of Trump’s Monday statement, in which he specifically called out the far-right for fomenting the Charlottesville violence, to declare the controversy all but resolved. “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,” McMillon said on the Wal-Mart website. “His remarks today were a step in the right direction.” McMillon said he saw no reason to leave the Trump panel: “We believe we should stay engaged to try to influence decisions in a positive way and help bring people together.” Trump’s news conference Tuesday, of course, demolished McMillon’s conclusion from a day earlier. The company hadn’t made a further statement before Trump disbanded the CEO councils Wednesday.
Retired, luckily, before the controversy
These CEOs had retired from their companies and therefore from the Trump jobs council before Charlottesville. They hadn’t been replaced on the councils. No points for them.
Doug Oberhelman, Caterpillar (retired in March)
Klaus Kleinfeld, Arconic (retired in April)
Mark Fields, Ford (retired in May)
Mario Longhi, U.S. Steel (retired in June)
Special notice for playing both sides of the fence
Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase: Dimon had been one of the more insistent voices rationalizing participation in the Trump councils. He told Bloomberg TV in June, after the Paris withdrawal decision, “I am a American patriot, and I want to help the president of the United States. … It is very hard if you say I’m going to go off an advisory group or not do ‘a, b, c’ because you disagree on one issue. Honestly, no one is going to agree with every president or prime minister on every issue. So I don’t want to overreact.”
On Wednesday, he signaled that as a member of the strategic panel, he had seen enough. “Racism, intolerance and violence are always wrong,” he said in a statement to JPMorgan employees. “There is no room for equivocation here: the evil on display by these perpetrators of hate should be condemned.”
Dimon deserves credit for one aspect of his statement that was unusual, albeit not unique, compared with those of his fellow business leaders: He specifically criticized Trump. “I strongly disagree with President Trump’s reaction to the events that took place in Charlottesville over the past several days,” he said. Weighing against that is that the “events in Charlottesville” actually took place on Friday and Saturday, well before Dimon’s statement.
10:25 a.m.: This article has been updated with a reference to Wal-Mart.
This article was originally published at 9:20 a.m.