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After riot, business leaders reckon with their support for Trump

The executives who stood by Trump were ultimately among his enablers, bestowing him with the imprimatur of mainstream business credibility and normalizing a president who has turned the country against itself

By David Gelles
Published: Jan 8, 2021

After riot, business leaders reckon with their support for TrumpPresident Donald Trump at a meeting with business leaders about tax reform in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Oct. 31, 2017. From the start of Trump’s presidency, corporate America has vacillated between supporting his economic agenda and condemning his worst impulses. Image: Doug Mills/The New York Times

Big business struck a Faustian bargain with President Donald Trump.

When he said something incendiary or flirted with authoritarianism, high-minded chief executives would issue vague, moralizing statements and try to distance themselves from a pro-business president who coveted their approval.

But when Trump cut taxes, rolled back onerous regulations or used them as props for a photo op, they would applaud his leadership and grin for the cameras.

After Wednesday’s events on Capitol Hill, the true cost of that balancing act was plain to see, even through the tear gas wafting in the rotunda.

The executives who stood by Trump were ultimately among his enablers, bestowing him with the imprimatur of mainstream business credibility and normalizing a president who has turned the country against itself.

“This is what happens when we subordinate our moral principles for what we perceive to be business interests,” said Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation and a board member at Square and Ralph Lauren. “It is ultimately bad for business and bad for society.”

From the start of Trump’s presidency, corporate America has vacillated between supporting the president’s economic agenda and condemning his worst impulses.

Early in Trump’s tenure, dozens of business leaders joined a pair of presidential advisory councils. Eager to have a seat at the table and sway policies to their liking, blue-chip chief executives set aside their reservations about Trump’s character failings, his history of racist behavior, the allegations of sexual assault against him and his declarations of legal impunity.

“He is the president of the United States. I believe he is the pilot flying our airplane,” Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan, said at the time. “I would try to help any president of the United States because I’m a patriot.”

The effort didn’t last long. Months after the groups were formed, they disbanded following Trump’s insistence that there were “very fine people on both sides” during a spasm of white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

But money has a short memory, and it wasn’t long after Charlottesville that Trump was back in the good graces of corporate America. Just months later, the Trump administration passed a tax overhaul that delivered a windfall to corporations and wealthy individuals.

By lowering corporate taxes, Trump delivered the business community one of its most coveted prizes, and business leaders lined up to support the effort.

At a White House appearance with Trump in October 2017, Tom Donohue, CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, delighted at the prospect of the tax cuts. “The business community has been waiting a long time for an administration and the president and a willing Congress to do what we haven’t done for many decades,” Donohue said.

Yet by basking in their new riches, companies were drawn that much closer to a White House that was separating children from their families at the border and cozying up with dictatorial regimes.

“The Trump tax cut was fool’s gold,” Howard Schultz, former CEO of Starbucks, said Thursday. “People were seduced, and unfortunately decided for their own benefits and the benefits of their company, that this was the right thing to do.”

By 2019, it was as if Charlottesville had never happened at all, and a new business advisory group was formed, this one with the likes of Tim Cook, CEO of Apple; Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart; and Julie Sweet, CEO of Accenture.

At the first meeting, Cook sat next to Trump. When the president asked Cook to begin speaking with a pat on the wrist, the Apple chief said, “Thank you, Mr. President. It’s an honor to serve on this council.”

At the same meeting, Visa’s CEO, Al Kelly, complimented Trump on his “very, very good leadership,” and Ginni Rometty, then CEO of IBM, fawned over the president for his “unwavering leadership.”

Some of those same CEOs had previously excoriated Trump for his behavior. Yet there they were 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 to CEOs who must balance helping advance policies to move the country forward, while speaking strongly on issues that cut against their core beliefs,” said Rich Lesser, CEO of the Boston Consulting Group, who was part of one of the first advisory councils.

Ultimately, however, the executives were reduced to the same sort of mental gymnastics and bouts of understatement that the president’s socially liberal supporters have had to perform in recent years, extolling Trump’s economic policies at opportune moments, while ignoring his fundamental flaws.

The grand bargain was well articulated last year by Stephen Ross, the billionaire developer of Hudson Yards and the owner of the Miami Dolphins, who supported Trump. “I think he’s been a little divisive,” Ross said in an interview then. “But I think there are a lot of great business policies he’s enacted that have been fantastic and nobody else could have done it but him.”

The pandemic brought a new round of photo ops for the president and top executives. Here was McMillon of Walmart with Trump in the Rose Garden. There was the president with the Ford Motor Co. chair, Bill Ford, in a factory in Michigan. And here was Chris Nassetta, CEO of Hilton, with Trump in the Cabinet Room.

As Trump lied about his administration’s response to the pandemic and took efforts to subvert the democratic process, some in big business stood by his side. Even as the president refused to accept the election results, Steve Schwarzman, the CEO of Blackstone and one of Trump’s staunchest allies, made remarks saying he understood why people were concerned about election irregularities. In late November, he released a statement saying, “the outcome is very certain today and the country should move on.”

On Wednesday, many chief executives had, once again, had enough. The National Association of Manufacturers called on Vice President Mike Pence to consider invoking the 25th Amendment of the Constitution and remove Trump from office. Many executives — including Cook of Apple, Dimon of JPMorgan and Schwarzman — denounced the violence, lamented the state of the country and called for accountability.

But after four years of much talk but little action, their words rang hollow.

“When people make political decisions for business reasons,” Walker said, “it can have heinous social consequences.”

©2019 New York Times News Service