Big business made a Faustian deal with President Trump.
When he said something inflammatory or flirted with authoritarianism, high-minded CEOs would make vague and moralizing statements and try to distance themselves from a pro-business president who coveted their approval.
But when Mr. Trump cut taxes, overruled onerous regulations, or used them as props for a photoshoot, they applauded his leadership and smiled at the cameras.
After Wednesday’s events on Capitol Hill, the true cost of this balancing exercise was evident, even through the tear gas floating in the rotunda.
The leaders who backed Mr. Trump were ultimately among his catalysts, giving him the imprimatur of traditional business credibility and normalizing a president who turned the country against himself.
“This is what happens when we subordinate our moral principles to what we perceive to be business interests,” said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation and a member of the board of directors of Square and Ralph Lauren. “It’s ultimately bad for business and bad for society.”
Since the beginning of Mr. Trump’s presidency, American businesses have hesitated between supporting the president’s economic agenda and condemning his worst impulses.
At the start of Mr. Trump’s tenure, dozens of business leaders joined a pair of presidential advisory boards. Eager to take seats at the table and influence policy as they see fit, the top-notch CEOs put aside their reservations about Mr. Trump’s character flaws, his history of racist behavior, the assault allegations sexual assault against him and his declarations of legal impunity. .
“He is the President of the United States. I believe he’s the pilot who flies our plane, ”said Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan at the time. “I would try to help any President of the United States because I am a patriot.”
The effort did not last long. Months after the groups formed, they disbanded following Mr. Trump’s insistence that there were “very good people on both sides” during a spasm of white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, in Virginia.
In the process, business leaders tried to explain how they got into the mess.
“I joined because the president asked me to join, and I thought it was the right thing to do as the CEO of a company like Merck,” Ken Frazier, one of the executives The country’s most prominent blacks, who were the first to leave the councils, said shortly after leaving. “I just felt that out of personal conscience I couldn’t stay.”
But money has a short memory, and it wasn’t long after Charlottesville that Mr. Trump was back in the good graces of corporate America. A few months later, the Trump administration passed a tax overhaul that offered a boon to high net worth businesses and individuals.
By lowering corporate taxes, Mr. Trump handed the business community one of his most coveted awards, and business leaders have lined up to support the effort.
Business and Economy
In an appearance at the White House with Mr. Trump in October 2017, Tom Donohue, chief executive of the US Chamber of Commerce, welcomed the prospect of tax cuts. “The business community has long waited for an administration, president and congress willing to do what we have not done for many decades,” Donohue said.
However, by basking in their new wealth, companies have come even closer to a White House that separated children from their families at the border and rubbed shoulders with dictatorial regimes.
“Trump’s tax cut was madman’s gold,” Howard Schultz, former Starbucks chief executive, said Thursday. “People were won over and unfortunately decided, for their own benefit and that of their business, that it was the right thing to do.”
In 2019, it was as if Charlottesville had never happened at all, and a new business advisory group was formed, this one with Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO; Doug McMillon, general manager of Walmart; and Julie Sweet, Executive Director of Accenture.
At the first meeting, Mr. Cook sat next to Mr. Trump. When the president asked Mr. Cook to start speaking with a slap on the wrist, Chief Apple said, “Thank you, Mr. Chairman. It is an honor to serve on this board.
At the same meeting, Visa chief executive Al Kelly praised Mr. Trump for his “very, very good leadership,” and Ginni Rometty, then IBM’s chief executive, praised the president for his “leadership without fault”.
Some of those same leaders had previously excoriated Mr. Trump for his behavior. Yet they were there in the White House. It was as if the worst moments of his presidency were a bad dream.
“The past four years have presented difficult challenges for CEOs who must find a balance in helping to advance policies to move the country forward, while speaking out firmly on issues that go against their core beliefs.” said Rich Lesser, managing director of Boston Consulting Group is part of one of the early advisory boards.
Ultimately, however, leaders were reduced to the same kind of mental gymnastics and underestimation that the president’s socially liberal supporters have had to perform in recent years, praising Mr. Trump’s economic policies at the right times, all the way. ignoring its fundamental flaws.
The big deal was well articulated last year by Stephen Ross, the billionaire Hudson Yards developer and owner of the Miami Dolphins, who backed Mr. Trump. “I think he’s been a bit of a divisor,” Ross said in an interview at the time. “But I think there are a lot of good trade policies that he has adopted that have been fantastic and no one else could have done but him.
The pandemic has brought a new round of photo ops for the president and senior leaders. Here is Mr. McMillon from Walmart with Mr. Trump in the rose garden. There was the president with the president of the Ford Motor Company, Bill Ford, in a factory in Michigan. And here’s Chris Nassetta, the Managing Director of Hilton, with Mr. Trump in the Cabinet Room.
As Mr. Trump lied about his administration’s response to the pandemic and strived to overturn the democratic process, some in big business stood by his side. Even as the president refused to accept the election results, Steve Schwarzman, chief executive of Blackstone and one of Mr. Trump’s staunch allies, made remarks saying he understood why people were concerned about the electoral irregularities. At the end of November, he issued a statement saying that “the outcome is very certain today and the country should move on”.
On Wednesday, many CEOs had, once again, had enough. The National Manufacturers Association has called on Vice President Mike Pence to consider invoking the 25th Amendment to the Constitution and removing Mr. Trump from office. Many leaders – including Mr Cook of Apple, Mr Dimon of JPMorgan and Mr Schwarzman – have denounced the violence, lamented the state of the country and called for accountability.
But after four years of much talking but little action, their words ringed hollow.
“When people make political decisions for business reasons,” Walker said, “it can have dire social consequences.”