Outraged in Private, Many CEOs Fear the Wrath of the President

The silence from the larger C.E.O. community about Mr. Trump’s reaction to the situation in Charlottesville has been remarkably conspicuous, even as one of their own has now been attacked online by the president.


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By Monday evening, at least two other C.E.O.s had stepped forward. Kevin Plank, the founder of Under Armour, announced on Twitter that he was resigning from the American Manufacturing Council, saying, among other things, that his company “engages in innovation and sports, not politics.” He did not refer to the president, though.

Mr. Plank was followed shortly after by Brian Krzanich, the Intel chief executive, who announced on the company’s website that he would step down from the council as well. “I resigned because I want to make progress, while many in Washington seem more concerned with attacking anyone who disagrees with them,” he said.

A few big-name corporate leaders released innocuous statements over the weekend condemning the violence by white supremacists in Charlottesville. But with the exception of Mr. Frazier, none appear to have directly condemned the president’s choice of words, which have been a lightning rod for Americans from many quarters, even among many Republican lawmakers and Trump supporters.

At a news conference on Monday, after a barrage of blistering criticism, the president said that “racism is evil.”

As the day wore on, several executives, including Meg Whitman of Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, made statements in support of Mr. Frazier, while others — including Tim Cook of Apple, and the Business Roundtable, which represents some 200 C.E.O.s — condemned the racism on display in Charlottesville.

But notably, not one executive on any of the president’s various councils said anything directly about the president.

The statements from American chief executives that came closest to criticizing Mr. Trump’s language came from Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and Mr. Krzanich of Intel.

Mr. Blankfein tweeted on Monday morning: “Lincoln: ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ Isolate those who try to separate us. No equivalence w/ those who bring us together.” (Mr. Blankfein is not on any of the president’s councils, which may make it easier for him to be critical.)

Mr. Krzanich put it this way: “There should be no hesitation in condemning hate speech or white supremacy by name. #Intel asks all our countries leadership to do the same.”

Marc Benioff of Salesforce aimed at Mr. Trump with a sarcastic post, saying: “Thank you @realDonaldTrump for calling to Love thy neighbor, value equality, calling evil by name.”

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But how can so many other American business leaders and senior executives remain quiet about the president’s reaction? Where is the moral courage to stand up?

After all, most companies these days spend countless hours talking about their culture and values. Just last week, Google publicly fired one of its engineers within days of his writing a memo that questioned whether “personality differences” between men and women led to there being fewer female engineers in the technology industry.

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Lloyd Blankfein, chief executive of Goldman Sachs, was indirectly critical of President Trump, but other American C.E.O.s have stayed publicly silent.

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Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

How can people like Adebayo O. Ogunlesi, a lead director of Goldman Sachs and an infrastructure investor, remain a member of Mr. Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum — a role highlighted on Mr. Ogunlesi’s company biography? How could Mr. Ogunlesi, an immigrant from Nigeria who was a clerk to Justice Thurgood Marshall of the Supreme Court, stay silent?

As Justice Marshall himself famously said, “Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy.”

Mr. Ogunlesi declined to comment, through a spokesman.

What about Indra Nooyi, the Indian-born chief executive of PepsiCo? She is a member of the president’s business council and has long been a vocal advocate for minorities. The company said this year that it “does not tolerate bigotry or hate in any form.”

When I contacted her about Mr. Trump’s remarks over the weekend, a spokesman directed me to a tweet that clearly didn’t mention the president: “Heartbroken by the violence in #Charlottesville. Hate and intolerance are a betrayal of what we stand for as Americans.”

In truth, it should not fall to C.E.O.s who are members of minority groups to speak up. They face enough pressure already.

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Some people who have less at stake are going on the record to support Mr. Frazier’s stance against the president. Tom Glocer, the former chief executive of Thomson Reuters, wrote on Twitter on Monday: “Ken has stood up for true American values. I call on all other members of Trump’s image-burnishing committees to do the same.”

Privately, many chief executives say they are fuming, outraged by the president. (This after many of them campaigned to get on Mr. Trump’s committees.) But many are too scared to say anything publicly that could make them or their company a target of Mr. Trump’s wrath.

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Indeed, Mr. Trump’s vitriol against Mr. Frazier and Merck — a company that depends on the government as a buyer for many of its drugs — will perhaps have an even greater chilling effect on other C.E.O.s who may consider speaking out. (The potential for economic retribution against Merck also demonstrates just how brave Mr. Frazier was in taking a stand.)

When I asked one chief executive Monday morning why he had remained publicly silent, he told me: “Just look at what he did to Ken. I’m not sticking my head up.” Which, of course, is the reason he said I could not quote him by name.

The same trepidation may explain why people like Mr. Ogunlesi don’t say anything. He runs an infrastructure fund that will most likely have to do business with the federal government. And Ms. Nooyi’s PepsiCo, for example, was briefly boycotted by Trump supporters when she made some comments that were construed as critical of him.

Other C.E.O.s, like Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, have contended that they consider it part of their patriotic duty to remain on the president’s business council, even when they disagree with things Mr. Trump says or does.

“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,” Mr. Dimon said in early June after Mr. Trump withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, a move that Mr. Dimon was against. Elon Musk of Tesla and Robert Iger of Disney resigned from the council in protest.

“Honestly, no one is going to agree with every president or prime minister on every issue, so I don’t want to overreact to it,” Mr. Dimon said.

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Lawrence Summers, who has served as Treasury secretary and president of Harvard, said in response to Mr. Dimon’s rationale at the time to Bloomberg News: “At what point as a patriot is your allegiance to your country rather to your president? I’ve always thought of my allegiance as a patriot as being to my country.”

On Monday, Mr. Dimon, who is the chairman of the Business Roundtable, put out his own statement about the violence in Charlottesville, but nothing about the president.

C.E.O.s have faced the question of how to address the president when they disagree with him before — over immigration, say, or the Paris climate accord. Each time, the executives have justified their silence by saying it is more valuable to be at the table than not.

That’s a valid argument — to a point. If the president isn’t following your advice or the values you espouse, when should you get up? Of course, big policy decisions like tax reform remain just around the corner, so many executives are desperate to keep a line open to the president even if it is only one-way.

It is a fair critique of the president that he didn’t immediately and directly condemn the bigoted actions over the weekend and call them out for what they were — remarks that tacitly helped normalize such hate.

While C.E.O.s may call out the hate, will they have the fortitude to call out the president?

Correction: August 14, 2017

An earlier version of this column misquoted part of President Trump’s statement on the violence in Charlottesville, Va. He blamed “many sides,” not “all sides,” for the violence that left one woman dead.

Correction: August 15, 2017

An earlier version of this article rendered incorrectly part of a statement from Merck. The company said “America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values,” not “fundamental views.”


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