For the CEOs invited to sit on President Donald Trump’s business advisory councils, the calculus was pretty simple. Their job is not to exercise political or social leadership, it is to make money for their shareholders. To the extent that having a seat at the table when the administration considers issues related to taxes, regulations, immigration and other matters can increase shareholder value, they’ll take one. To the extent that associating the brand with Mr. Trump detracts from shareholder value, they’ll quit.
That largely explains the line Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank tried to walk over the last several months. He accepted a seat on the president’s manufacturing panel early in the administration because he wanted his company “to have an active seat at the table and represent our industry.” After he made remarks supportive of the president at a time when the nation was roiled over the first iteration of President Trump’s Muslim ban (though not in response to that controversy), Mr. Plank took out a full-page ad in The Sun to quell the backlash. Now, in the wake of President Trump’s late and tepid condemnation of white supremacists after the weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, Mr. Plank is out for good.
But there’s a little more to this story. First, the “seat at the table” has turned out to be meaningless. Neither the manufacturing panel nor another panel focused on strategy and policy has met in months, and neither have more meetings scheduled. And second, the week’s events underscore just how vindictive President Trump can be and how perilous it is to associate with him. It’s all risk and no reward.
The first CEO to resign after Mr. Trump initially failed to condemn the neo-Nazis, Klan members and others who gathered in Charlottesville was Merck’s Ken Frazier, who wrote that he was leaving the panel to “take a stand against intolerance and extremism.” He didn’t explicitly criticize the president, but the message was clear — to Mr. Trump, anyway. The president took to Twitter twice on Monday to blast Mr. Frazier for “RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!” and “taking jobs out of the U.S.”
That’s part of a pattern of bullying not just corporations that displease him — Carrier over outsourcing to Mexico, Boeing and Lockheed Martin over prices of new planes — but of anyone who dares hold any value, priority or principle beyond the glorification of Donald J. Trump. James Comey insisted on pledging his loyalty to the truth rather than Mr. Trump, so he was fired and buried under a barrage of tweets. Attorney General Jeff Sessions attempted to maintain a shred of integrity and recused himself from the investigation into Russian interference into the presidential campaign, so the president publicly berated him as “weak.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sought to move on from the disaster that was Trumpcare, so the president repeatedly called him a failure and demanded he “get back to work.”
The fate of those who work with President Trump is becoming reminiscent of the parable of the scorpion and the frog. Why does the scorpion sting the frog as it is giving them both safe passage across the water, causing them both to drown? Because it is in his nature. By now, Mr. Trump’s nature should be clear to all.
That was the subtext of Intel CEO Brian Kraznich’s announcement that he, too, would step down from the manufacturing council. In a blog post, he said he “resigned because I want to make progress, while many in Washington seem more concerned with attacking anyone who disagrees with them. We should honor — not attack — those who have stood up for equality and other cherished American values.” The implication is that it wasn’t the president’s muted response to the Charlottesville violence that pushed him over the edge but Mr. Trump’s willingness to lash out at those, like Mr. Frazier, who criticized it. What responsible CEOs would put their companies at the double risk of boycotts from those who oppose Mr. Trump and of Twitter scorn from the president they were trying to serve? It’s clearly much safer to stay away.
Never one to let an issue die, Mr. Trump was back on Twitter Tuesday morning to proclaim, “For every CEO that drops out of the Manufacturing Council, I have many to take their place.” We’ll see about that.
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