To the CEOs who joined President Donald Trump’s manufacturing council with the hope of advising the president about what’s good for America’s private sector, I have one thing to say.
Stop playing yourselves. Now is the time.
In the past 72 hours, Trump has proved not only that he doesn’t care about the values of the American workplace, but also that he doesn’t respect your opinion about what those values should be.
That is why three CEOs left the president’s manufacturing council on Monday.
Not in my workplace
I’m sure you’re all aware of the heinous events that transpired in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend when white supremacists and fascists of various strains descended on the city to put their violence and bigotry on display for the world to see. An American died there, and all Trump had for her were a few pithy words about how there was blame to go around “on many sides.”
And then on Monday morning, when Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, who had been the only black CEO on the manufacturing council, resigned from it over Trump’s absurd response to what transpired, Trump did what he is known to do. He went on a Twitter rampage.
“Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President’s Manufacturing Council, he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES,” he tweeted.
Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank and Intel CEO Brian Krzanich followed shortly after, and again Trump was bitter.
He tweeted: “For every CEO that drops out of the Manufacturing Council, I have many to take their place. Grandstanders should not have gone on. JOBS!”
These “grandstanders” were clearly trying to send a message to Trump, with leaving apparently the only way they could get him to pay attention. For months, CEOs have rationalized joining Trump’s business councils by saying they are trying help the president make better decisions about American business. That obviously isn’t happening.
Business leaders will tell you that discrimination creates a hostile work environment, so any business-minded politician should care about that. They should care that people qualified and ready to work feel safe when they do so. This has become a value, a norm in American business.
That is why you see some of the people who participated in the Charlottesville protests getting fired from their jobs. In America, we have decided that no one has a right to make anyone else feel uncomfortable in their place of business because of race or religion and that business owners have a right to make sure of that.
Raise your hand if you’re being bullied
This shouldn’t have to be articulated to the president of the United States.
But if you think you can articulate it, you’re playing yourself. Trump isn’t really taking the advice of the CEOs he’s surrounded himself with in these photo ops.
We’ve already seen some examples of this. Tesla CEO Elon Musk left the council after Trump said the US would back out of the Paris climate accord. Travis Kalanick, then still Uber’s CEO, left after the immigration travel ban.
Both men argued that they had joined because they thought they could advise the president.
Trump’s decisions made it obvious that was not the case. Their advice never mattered. They couldn’t change Trump’s mind about a policy once it was set. Think about it: His closest advisers can barely move him, let alone people outside the White House. Remember how he steamrolled them (and business leaders) with his decision to leave the Paris agreement.
So, to the CEOs who remain part of these councils: Save the “But I’m helping him” excuses for someone else.
Maybe you, a millionaire CEO, are afraid of a tweet from Trump. That is the impression at least one cowardly CEO gave The New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin:
“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.”
One of the scariest things about American capitalism is that CEOs can sometimes rule like kings (watch a board try to unseat JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon and see what happens), while presidents get elected every four years. Think about that for a second.
Or maybe you’re on the council because you think you can play Trump’s game. Frazier, perhaps, thought it would be better to have a seat at the table as Trump talked drug pricing and healthcare.
Maybe you think that, like Boeing, you can petition the president to move against your foreign rivals (in Boeing’s case, Bombardier) for the benefit of your company.
It’s a cynical trick, but at least it makes sense.
It’s not worth it. Trump’s trade policy has been in disarray so far, just like the rest of his policies. If you play this game, maybe you’ll get a nice tariff or some tough talk against your competitors, but none of that lasts forever.
You know what does? Photos of you sitting around a table with a president who doesn’t care what you say. Photos of you looking like a sycophant wasting your shareholders’, employees’, and customers’ time.