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In Trump Era’s End, an Uneasy Reckoning for Corporate America
Corporate America is parting with its CEO president — carefully.
Four years after Donald Trump swept into the White House, cowing executives and shaking markets with tweet storms and tantrums, corporations that applauded when he cut taxes and red tape are struggling to come to grips with the havoc that’s now followed.
After Trump incited a mob of loyalists tostorm the Capitol Wednesday, prominent business figures swiftly condemned the violence — without mentioning the president by name. Only one major business group, the National Association of Manufacturers, singled him out. Even as the Trump administration comes to its chaotic end, with calls for the president to be immediately removed from office, the business world is stepping delicately.
When Trump arrived in Washington, he could sway a company with a tweet. Now Facebook has suspended his account, possibly for the duration of his presidency, while Twitter put him on a 12-hour ban and warned it could take more permanent steps. Shopify, the Canadian company behind many e-commerce sites, said Thursday that it had closed two online stores that sell red MAGA hats and other Trump paraphernalia.
“That’s how quickly the worm turns,” said Davia Temin, founder of New York City crisis consultancy Temin and Co. “One needs to make a distinction between Trump the president, who you may or may not have made any comments about over the last four years, and the sedition, the attack on the Capitol that happened yesterday afternoon.”
Even now, few of the responses challenge Trump directly. The National Association of Manufacturers, which is typically seen as supportive of Republican policies, urged Trump’s cabinet to consider ousting him using their authority of the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which allows such action when a president is deemed unfit to serve. Ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc. blasted Trump in an eight-part tweet, summing it up with a call for him to resign or for the government to remove him.
Replying to @benandjerrysResign, impeach, 25th Amendment… not one more day. (8/8)10:04 PM · Jan 7, 2021
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But most of the condemnation was more generically focused on “elected officials” for their role in perpetuating the position that the election was fraudulent and encouraging the anger that boiled over into the deadly storming of the center of the U.S. government. Like the powerful, evil wizard Voldemort in a Harry Potter book, Trump was the protagonist who was not named.
“Today marks a sad and shameful chapter in our nation’s history,” Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook said in a Wednesday tweet. ‘Those responsible for this insurrection should be held to account, and we must complete the transition to President-elect Biden’s administration. It’s especially when they are challenged that our ideals matter most.”
The CEOs of International Business Machines Corp., Coca-Cola Co., Pfizer Inc., Dell Technologies Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., United Parcel Service Inc., and General Motors Co. made similar statements forcefully condemning the events without mentioning any politicians by name. The Business Roundtable, which is exclusively open to CEOs, blamed the violence on “elected officials’ perpetuation of the fiction of a fraudulent 2020 presidential election.”
“We condemn the actions of those who were incited to storm the Capitol last night,” Stanley Black & Decker Inc. CEO Jim Loree said in a statement Thursday, without saying who did the inciting. “We believe that those who have chosen to illegally threaten the operation of our government should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
What is happening in our nation’s capital is appalling and saddening. The United States has long served as a beacon of democracy, and today we are reminded of both its importance and fragility. @Cisco condemns the violence we have witnessed today & call for it to end immediately.11:48 PM · Jan 6, 2021
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The heads of Wall Street’s biggest firms, from JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Blackstone Group Inc. to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and BlackRock Inc., alsocalled for an end to the violence. So did the CEO of Palantir Technologies Inc., which includes Trump supporter Peter Thiel among its founders.
It’s a tough situation for companies, which even as they have become comfortable taking positions on social issues, are less conditioned to direct involvement in a U.S. presidential election, said Fred Foulkes, a management professor at the Boston University Questrom School of Business.
As an example, American Electric Power Co., which is represented on the board of the National Association of Manufacturers, distanced itself from the direct call for Trump’s ouster. “We did not contribute to the NAM statement and did not vote on or approve it as a NAM member,” the company said in a statement. It condemned the violence in a separate statement.
“If you’re one of these big company CEOs, it’s kind of expected that you say something now,” Foulkes said. “We’re sort of getting to the point where if someone isn’t commenting, you wonder ‘why not?’”
Even before the violence Wednesday, the majority of 33 large company CEOs were inagreement that Trump was attempting to overturn a democratically run election and that members of Congress who were assisting him were “aiding and abetting sedition,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for leadership studies at the Yale School of Management. He polled the executives on the topic Tuesday morning in a hastily called “crisis caucus” of members of the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute.
The executives were unanimous in saying that CEOs should warn lobbyists privately that their firms will no longer support “election result deniers” in Congress. It was the first unanimous poll in 30 years for the group, spanning 105 summits and a handful of other crisis meetings, Sonnenfeld said in an interview.
With less than two weeks left before Trump leaves office, it’s probably too late for companies to speak out directly against him, said Temin, the crisis consultant. She has been advising her clients to follow the playbook of condemning the violence without singling out the president.
“If you haven’t made a whole series of comments throughout this four-year period, I do not believe this is the time to start,” she said. “Now is the time to re-evaluate your corporate purpose, how that interacts with our democracy, and be onboard in the next administration in a constructive way.”
— With assistance by Ryan Beene, Mark Chediak, Joe Deaux, Max Abelson, Sridhar Natarajan, Mark Gurman, Lizette Chapman, Gerry Smith, Thomas Black, Riley Griffin, and Sonali Basak