After Charlottesville, tech divided on Trump councils

After Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier bails on Trump's manufacturing council, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich becomes the first tech leader to follow suit.

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President Trump Meets Representatives of PhRMA

Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, left, in happier times with US President Donald Trump. Frazier resigned from Trump's manufacturing committee after the president's tepid response to the racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

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In the wake of the tragedy in Virginia, several tech leaders serving on advisory boards for President Donald Trump appear to be standing pat.

This comes after Kenneth Frazier, CEO of pharmaceutical giant Merck, resigned Monday from the Presidential Committee on American Manufacturing, saying in a statement, "America's leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry, and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal."

In defiant response, Trump attacked Frazier for resigning on Twitter.

Frazier's decision capped off the heaps of criticism Trump drew for not specifically condemning the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and white supremacist groups that descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend in the name of a rally called "Unite the Right." Instead he said, "we condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides."

So far, the lone tech CEO to leave the council after the tragedy has been Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, who said late Monday he had resigned, criticizing what he called a Washington leadership more interested in attacking critics than focusing on making progress.

Kevin Plank, the CEO of athletic wear manufacturer Under Armour, also resigned from the president's council late Monday, Although he didn't specifically mention Trump or Charlottesville, Plank said his company will focus on promoting "unity, diversity and inclusion" through sports.

On Tuesday, Trump tweeted in response that has many CEOs ready to "take their place." 

Shortly after Trump's tweet, Scott Paul, head of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a nonprofit that represents manufacturers tweeted he is resigning from the council "because it's the right thing for me to do."  

Meanwhile, several tech leaders sit on Trump's manufacturing council, including GE Chairman Jeff Immelt, Dell CEO Michael Dell and Corning CEO Wendell Weeks. Another tech leader, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, serves on a separate council, the President's Strategic and Policy Forum.

It doesn't appear as if any of them will be following Frazier, Krzanich or Paul.

Latest controversy

Frazier isn't the first to dump Trump's boards. Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, left both of the aforementioned councils in June after the US withdrew from the Paris Agreement regarding climate change. Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick also left a council in February in response to the president's immigration ban.

The nation's attention was drawn to Charlottesville on Saturday when a supremacist group showed up to protest the city's attempt to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, prompting counter protesters in response. The rally ended in tragedy when a white supremacist drove a car into a crowd of protesters, killing one woman and injuring 19 others.

Trump spoke again Monday about the events in Charlottesville, saying "racism is evil," and finally mentioning the KKK and the other supremacist groups.

But Roy Gutterman, a free speech professor at Syracuse University, thinks the president gave a "grudging condemnation."

No change

What do the CEOs serving on the council say? Their companies didn't offer much insight.

"With more than 100,000 employees in the United States, it is important for GE to participate in the discussion on how to drive growth and productivity in the US" the company said in statement Monday. "Therefore, Jeff Immelt will remain on the Presidential Committee on American Manufacturing while he is the Chairman of GE."

Ditto for Dell's chief Michael Dell, said Lauren Lee, a company spokeswoman.

"There's no change in Dell engaging with the Trump administration and governments around the world to share our perspective on policy issues that affect our company, customers and employees," she said.

Intel originally declined to comment, and IBM and Corning didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.

Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted Monday that America must take a stand against racist violence.

All for show

The reason why there may be reluctance to leave is because some CEOs still view being asked by a sitting president to join a council, committee or task force "a tremendous honor" to help serve their country, according to Gutterman.

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Jon Krosnick, a political science professor at Stanford University, said many company heads know that some presidential invites to boards are "really more for show than substance." Some may never officially meet or help influence policy, he added.

Krosnick thinks that if any CEOs were tempted to step down from any councils, Trump's comments on Monday may have persuaded them to stay on board.  

But at what point does being associated with the stigma over a Trump controversy override that "honor"? Kalanick quit the economic advisory council after Uber got ensnared in the protests over the immigration ban.

Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has been urging tech companies to diversify, said in a statement that other CEOs must stand up, speak out and take principled and brave action.

"Silence is betrayal," he said. "Which side are you on?"

First published, Aug. 14 at 4:03 p.m. PT
Update, Aug. 15 10:01 a.m. PT: Adds tweet by Trump responding to the manufacturing resignations of Intel CEO Brian Krzanich and Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank and Alliance for American Manufacturing head Scott Paul.

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