President Trump, with senior adviser Jared Kushner, left, and Merck chief executive Kenneth C. Frazier, right, meets with manufacturing chief executives at the White House in February. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
President Trump’s relationship with the American business community suffered a major setback on Wednesday as the president was forced to shut down his major business advisory councils after corporate leaders repudiated his comments on the violence in Charlottesville this weekend.
Trump announced the disbanding of the two councils — the Strategy & Policy Forum and the Manufacturing Council, which hosted many of the top corporate leaders in America — amid a growing uproar by chief executives furious over Trump’s decision to equate the actions of white supremacists and protesters in remarks Tuesday at Trump Tower.
But those groups had already decided to dissolve on their own earlier in the day, a person familiar with the process said. JP Morgan Chase chief executive Jamie Dimon, a member of the “Strategy & Policy Forum,” told employees in a note on Wednesday that his group decided to disband after Trump’s news conference on Tuesday, in which he appeared to show sympathy for some of the people who marched alongside the neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville.
“Constructive economic and regulatory policies are not enough and will not matter if we do not address the divisions in our country,” Dimon wrote his employees. “It is a leader’s role, in business or government, to bring people together, not tear them apart.
Earlier Wednesday, the CEOs of Campbell Soup and the conglomerate 3M resigned from the manufacturing council. “Racism and murder are unequivocally reprehensible and are not morally equivalent to anything else that happened in Charlottesville,” Campbell Soup chief executive Denise Morrison said. “I believe the president should have been — and still needs to be — unambiguous on that point.”
General Electric chairman Jeff Immelt, who was also on the manufacturing advisory group, made a similar argument, saying in a statement that he had decided to resign after finding Trump’s comments on Tuesday “deeply troubling.”
“The Committee I joined had the intention to foster policies that promote American manufacturing and growth,” he said. “However, given the ongoing tone of the discussion, I no longer feel that this Council can accomplish these goals.”
As the number of resignations swelled, Trump announced on Twitter Wednesday afternoon that he’d shut down the councils. “Rather than putting pressure on the businesspeople of the Manufacturing Council & Strategy & Policy Forum. I am ending both,” he wrote.
The dissolution of the councils was a remarkable moment for Trump, who has made his corporate experience and ability to leverage America’s business potential as one of his chief credentials. It also marks a rapid descent for a president who has alternatively praised and attacked the decisions of corporate leaders, sometimes making unverified or false claims, and whose policy choices on issues like immigration and climate change have been criticized as anti-business.
Many corporate leaders have still stayed close to the White House, in hopes that having a voice at the table was better than none at all, and with an eye toward winning favor as Washington eyed changes to the tax code and infrastructure spending that could be worth trillions.
But Trump’s insistence that blame fell on “many sides” for the violence that occurred in Charlottesville over the weekend, which included the alleged killing of a woman by a white supremacist driving a car into a crowd of protesters, seemed to push many chief executives to reconsider their relationship.
Merck chief executive Ken Frazier, one of the few African Americans represented among the business leaders advising Trump, was the first to resign from the manufacturing council. Trump lashed out at the decision, alleging that Merck was boosting drug prices and therefore a bad corporate actor.
The decision to disband the councils offered the companies a chance to sever ties as one and not leave any firm isolated by an individual decision. Some appeared willing to wait it out on Monday and earlier Tuesday as the White House was in cleanup mode, but his news conference at Trump Tower on Tuesday afternoon proved to be a breaking point.
Johnson & Johnson chief executive Alex Gorsky, who had previously said he would remain on the manufacturing council to have a voice at the table, announced Trump’s latest remarks were not sustainable. “The President’s most recent statements equating those who are motivated by race-based hate with those who stand up against hatred is unacceptable and has changed our decision to participate in the White House Manufacturing Advisory Council,” Gorsky said.
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