Do CEOs of Top Employers Have a Responsibility to Respond to Trump?
"Wow, that was something," said CNN anchor Jake Tapper after Donald Trump's press conference Tuesday in which the president doubled down on his original statement about what happened last weekend in Charlottesville, blaming "bad people" "on both sides" for the violence that led to the death of a 32-year-old woman. Meanwhile ...
On Fox News, normally a redoubt of Trump support, the 5 p.m. co-hosts of “The Specialists” shook their heads, with the anchor Guy Benson saying that Mr. Trump “lost me” when he insisted that some “very fine people” participated in the white supremacist rally.
“They were chanting things like, ‘Jews will not replace us,’” Mr. Benson said. “There’s nothing good about that.”
His co-host, Ms. Timpf, a libertarian pundit who contributes to National Review Online, exhaled deeply. “It was one of the biggest messes that I’ve ever seen,” she said. “I can’t believe it happened.”
Trump's press conference, which was supposed to focus on his executive order on infrastructure, came just hours after several C-suite executives denounced that original Charlottesville statement of his while resigning their positions from one of his advisory boards.
Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, and Alliance for American Manufacturing President Scott Paul all removed themselves from the American Manufacturing Council in the wake of Trump's response to the violent events over the weekend in Charlottesville (Frazier, after he bowed out, immediately received more than a little heat in a Trump tweet, which read, "Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President's Manufacturing Council, he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!").
Following these resignations (and just before Trump's press conference), Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, a member of Trump's Strategic and Policy Forum, issued an internal statement to Walmart's 2.3 million employees that included the following two sentences: "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 by unequivocally rejecting the appalling actions of white supremacists ... I will continue to strongly advocate on behalf of our associates and customers, and urge our elected officials to do their part to promote a more just, tolerant and diverse society."
Although McMillon didn't resign from the Forum (like Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, Disney CEO Bob Iger, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk did a while back; Kalanick after Trump's first executive order on immigration, Iger and Musk after Trump exited the Paris climate agreement), his statement was a monumental one. Walmart is the largest U.S. employer as measured by employees and largest U.S. company as measured by revenues, and it has an extremely diverse employee base and customer base. In addition to its ubiquitous suburban superstores and status as the biggest employer in most of the so-called red states, Walmart is now among the largest and most prestigious tech employers in the country, as it continues to battle Amazon in the lucrative and highly competitive e-commerce space (many believe that, in the not-so-distant future, all of us will buy just about everything, including food, cars, and homes, from one of two places: Amazon or Walmart).
And so, McMillon's statement, which was posted internally and also made available for anyone to read via a web link, appeared to be a message to millions of employees and customers alike. It sent a message to current and future employees that Walmart promotes an inclusive, progressive culture, which many young workers, particularly those in the tech space, highly value and see as a requisite in an employer. It also sent a message to current and future customers that Walmart is an inclusive, progressive company, which many customers increasingly highly value and require from those they buy their goods and services from. Remember #DeleteUber?
McMillon's statement, it should be pointed out, was somewhat different than the one given by Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier. Frazier, who is one of the few African-American CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and whose grandfather was born into slavery, took a more personal tone in his rebuke and resignation, speaking as much as on his own behalf as for his company. In fact, he ended his public resignation from Trump's council by saying, "As CEO of Merck and as a matter of personal conscience, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism." It's also necessary to point out that Frazier took some bottom-line risk with his statement, since Merck does a good amount of business with the U.S. government.
On Wednesday, less than 24 hours after Trump's press conference (which in some circles was lauded, perhaps most notably by this famous hater), more executives denounced Trump and resigned from his manufacturing council. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO deputy chief of staff Thea Lee, and 3M CEO Inge Thulin all spoke out against Trump's statements while tendering their resignations from his council. Minutes later, it was reported that the remaining members, including Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman, were speaking about disbanding the council altogether. Meanwhile, Campbell CEO Denise Morrison resigned from the manufacturing council. And then, moments after Morrison announced her resignation, Trump tweeted this:
Rather than putting pressure on the businesspeople of the Manufacturing Council & Strategy & Policy Forum, I am ending both. Thank you all!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 16, 2017
Which put an an end to further resignations from additional CEOs.
Along with the aforementioned executives, CEOs from Goldman Sachs, GE, and a few other large companies (who were not members of the recently disbanded forum and council) either rebuked Trump's statements on Charlottesville or, at least, spoke out against the white supremacists at Charlottesville. And no doubt many other CEOs who haven't responded have considered doing so.
All of which begs the questions: In the next few days, and going forward when the next surreal situation occurs (and chances are it will occur), do CEOs of top employers have a responsibility to respond to Trump? And, if so, how?
These aren't easy questions to answer. And I certainly don't envy the position that CEOs at top employers find themselves in these days, given Trump's wrath and all. Nor do I have any great advice for any executive leading a large company with thousands of employers to please and thousands of shareholders to please as well.
However, perhaps the recent statements by Walmart CEO McMillon and Merck CEO Frazier are good examples and good places to start when trying to answer these questions. And perhaps this, via Bloomberg, is a good place to start, too:
I have to confess that it seems odd to me to denounce Nazism out of fealty to shareholder value. You can just denounce Nazism because you're not a Nazi! This is a financial newsletter, but I have never assumed that the operations of capital are autonomous and self-executing, or that executives are robots who are programmed to maximize shareholder value to the exclusion of all other considerations. Corporations exist in society, and are not above society's concerns. Businesses operate through human beings, who remain human even in their roles as CEOs. One would hope.
One would also hope that, along with chief executives, commanders-in-chief would have a little humanity. But that, these days, seems a little too much to hope for.
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