There was a topic I’d been planning to write about months ago, but then I got sidetracked by more immediate news of the day, and I never came back around to writing about it because new, more demanding topics kept arising. What I’d wanted to address was the idea among many on the left that people on “our side” or people who agree with us or who share our values, basically anyone we think of as working for the forces of “good,” that these people should not be willing to work with or advise Trump in any way. A couple prominent people who got particularly hammered for their decision to work with Trump early on were Elon Musk, Tesla founder & CEO and Travis Kalanick who was at the time CEO of Uber.
Even though I completely understood this impulse that many Trump opponents were feeling – there were moments I felt it too – in general, I didn’t agree with it. So that’s what I wanted to write about, early on in Trump’s presidency, when there were a lot of people in the public eye having to make this difficult decision – prominent people who didn’t necessarily agree with much of what Trump stood for (or perhaps did but had a fan base or customer base that didn’t), but felt they had something to contribute to his presidency nevertheless. Now, in light of the defections from Trump’s Manufacturing Council over the last few days, I’ve been thinking about this topic again.
Even when I didn’t agree with it, I understood why many Trump opponents didn’t want to see prominent CEOs or other business executives – particularly ones they admired, or whose companies represented values they believed in – taking a role in the Trump administration or advising him in any way. It felt like it was an endorsement of his presidency. And even worse – if these business execs were people whose views didn’t traditionally align with Trump’s, their involvement appeared to give his presidency a bipartisan sheen – one which he had done nothing at all to earn. So yeah, there was a part of me that would have gotten a thrill out of seeing hundreds of business execs turn him down, leaving his advisory councils sitting empty. But a much bigger part of me felt more secure knowing that people I respected were being included in Trump’s presidency.
To put it in the most simplistic terms, I wanted good people surrounding Trump, filling his head with good ideas instead of bad people surrounding him, filling his head with bad ideas. And it’s not because I was naïve and thought they would transform Trump into a different person, or even that they would be able to overhaul is agenda in any significant way. But as stubborn and contrary as Trump can be, as resistant as he is to learning and heeding good advice, there actually is evidence that he can be very suggestible when advice comes from people he respects. And who does Trump respect? He respects “his generals” and he respects very successful businessmen (I say “businessmen” and not “businesspeople” because from everything we’ve seen, the people Trump listens to in the business world are all men, aside from his daughter Ivanka).
So while it was clear that no adviser, even the most respected business executives, would be able to convince Trump to pursue an agenda full of lefty priorities (or that they’d even want to), if there was even the tiniest chance that one of them might talk him out of one of his terrible ideas, then having them there would be worth it. And we know that, at least in small ways, this has happened. For example, several business leaders were able to talk Trump out of a long held article of faith, which he’d been prepared to act on: that China was still manipulating its currency. With several of them backing each other up and repeating the same message to Trump, they were able to change his mind on that issue.
Unsurprisingly though, these business leaders have not been able to change Trump’s positions on the biggest, most controversial issues. And they can’t change who he is as a person or as a President. But that’s actually another reason why their presence on his councils is meaningful: when Trump crosses the biggest, boldest lines, these advisers have an opportunity to make a real statement by displaying their disapproval. They might not be able to change Trump, but setting an example and sending a message for the rest of us about what is and isn’t acceptable does still matter, even if Trump doesn’t seem to understand that.
Uber CEO Kalanick faced a barrage of criticism over his advisory position after Trump’s first travel ban went into place (much of the criticism was due to the way Uber handled a taxi strike protesting the ban at NYC airports, but this led to wider criticism of Kalanick’s involvement with Trump). As a result, Kalanick resigned his spot on Trump’s economic council with a public statement criticizing the travel ban. Did this result in Trump changing his mind on the ban? No. But it resulted in an additional avenue of attention for this important issue, and it put Kalanick’s condemnation of the travel ban in a much brighter spotlight than it would have been had he never joined Trump’s council (it’s most likely the only reason he even made a public statement on the issue in the first place).
Next, we had Tesla’s Elon Musk, who faced a torrent of complaints and even had a handful of customers cancel their orders in reaction to his role on Trump’s economic council. But Musk lasted through the uproar over Trump’s travel ban. For Musk, the last straw was when Trump announced his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord. Another prominent member of the economic council, Disney’s Bob Iger, joined Musk in quitting the council over Paris Climate.
Again, these advisers weren’t able to influence Trump’s decision making while they belonged to the council, and their dropping off the council clearly didn’t change Trump’s mind on the relevant issues either. But they were able to make a louder statement and give a stronger rebuke of this terrible decision by having been on the council in the first place. Reports of Elon Musk quitting Trump’s economic council over Paris Climate are attention grabbing. Elon Musk, private business guy criticizing Trump would not be nearly as newsworthy.
And finally we come to the present day, and perhaps Trump’s most egregious decision yet. Though it’s probably wrong to even call it a decision, as it seems Trump’s failure to promptly criticize or show any real anger at the violent, destructive & eventually deadly invasion of white supremacists over the weekend was born of instinct. Either way, it was reprehensible. And the business leaders on his advisory council are responding. As of the time of this writing, four members of Trump’s Manufacturing Council have quit in response to the events of this past weekend: the first was Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier. He was followed by Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank and Intel CEO Brian Krzanich. They all exited the council on Monday. On Tuesday, Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing also announced he was quitting the council.
A fifth executive, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon (a member of a different White House advisory council), will remain on the council, but issued a strong rebuke of the President on Tuesday:
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. His remarks today were a step in the right direction and we need that clarity and consistency in the future.
All of these executives were able to make much louder, more powerful statements because they were speaking from the perch of Trump’s advisory boards. Had they not joined these councils in the first place, their admonitions of him now wouldn’t have nearly the reach or authority that they do. And the fact that they are viewed as a group – as part of a pattern – by virtue of all belonging to the councils, makes the statement even more potent still.
I was just about to finish up writing this post Thursday afternoon, when Trump held an event with the press, intended as an announcement about his infrastructure executive order. But it turned into a completely bonkers Q&A about his response to Saturday’s events Charlottesville. This event made very clear (if there had ever been any question) what Trump’s true feelings about the events of this weekend are. Trump spoke with more emotion, more passion, and more anger than he had during any of his previous comments on Charlottesville.
He once again said that both sides were to blame, but then went on to spew venom at the “alt-left” (an invented title) who “came charging in without a permit” and were “very, very violent.” He defended “many” on the “other side” who he said were not all neo-Nazis and were treated “absolutely unfairly” by the press. These innocent people were only there to quietly protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue, Trump said. Trump then treated us to a lengthy diatribe about idea of removing confederate statues around the country, complaining that it’s “changing history, changing culture.”
It was clear throughout that Trump was speaking from the heart, that what we were hearing in that moment were his genuine feelings. And while many pundits said Trump once again made this a moral equivalence, I didn’t see moral equivalence here. Trump made it very clear that he saw one side as the real bad guy in this equation, and it was not the side that came bearing swastikas.
So, now, having seen this performance from Trump, I think it’s untenable for business leaders to continue to associate themselves with him. It’s crucial now for the many executives who remain on his various advisory groups to join forces, and together make a very loud statement that this is unacceptable in the man who’s supposed to be the leader for all Americans.* That’s more important now than any small shifts in policy they may be able to nudge from him down the road.**
As I said above, a reproach from them isn’t going to change Trump. It can’t rewind time and fix the debacle of this past weekend. And it obviously can’t turn Trump into a whole new person. But it’s important that we, as a society send the message to Trump and to the whole country – and to the world which is always watching us – that the view Trump has just espoused is not acceptable. And we must truly mean that we will not accept it. Having these powerful voices out there, amplified a hundred-fold by virtue of their (ex) roles in Trump’s administration, helps send that message loud and clear.
*Tuesday evening, after Trump’s Q&A, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and deputy chief of staff Thea Lee announced they were quitting the manufacturing council. They’re the only members to make an announcement post-Q&A so far.
**I still believe that we need decent people to remain inside the administration, close to Trump. There aren’t many people I feel fill that role right now, but for the few that do (e.g. H.R. McMaster), I feel much more secure knowing they’re there, reining in the President’s worst impulses as much as they’re able to.