Why CEOs will still come to the table to work with Trump despite quitting councils

Politics

JUDY WOODRUFF: But first, President Trump has repeatedly positioned himself as the kind of president who would have a unique connection with CEOs and corporate chiefs. But some business leaders publicly broke with him in the past week after his remarks about the violence in Charlottesville.

One question now is, what happens next with Mr. Trump and the business community?

William Brangham has a conversation about that.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Thanks, Judy.

After the president was inaugurated, he proudly assembled several advisory councils where CEOs from some of the nation's biggest corporations could come, give advice, and help steer national policy. But even before the president's remarks about Charlottesville, a few of them had already quit, including Walt Disney CEO Robert Iger, and Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla. They quit because of the president's stance on climate change.

But after Charlottesville, the CEO of Merck, Ken Frazier, also broke with the president, saying, quote: America's leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy.

Within two days, other CEOs announced that they too would quit the council. The president then declared via Twitter that he was disbanding the groups entirely.

Andrew Ross Sorkin has been covering this for the New York Times, where he's a columnist and editor. He is also co-anchor of "Squawk Box" on CNBC.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Welcome to the NewsHour.

ANDREW ROSS SORKIN, The New York Times: Thank you for having me.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, tell me, why — were you surprised by this exodus of CEOs?

ANDREW ROSS SORKIN: I was surprised only in so far of the timing. I always imagined at some point there would be a break with this president. What I didn't know was what it was going to take for some of them, if not in this case, all of them to stand up and effectively rebuke the president.

When they got involved with the president early on in his tenure, within first month really going to these meetings at the White House, going to these photo ops, having these council-like sessions, there was always a question as to what they were going to do if the president didn't do some of the things they wanted to see, whether it be the climate change issue, whether it be how he was treating immigrants and immigration as a policy issue.

Clearly, they have an issue with taxes, and they want to reform taxes, but I think on this issue of — on the violence that took place in Charlottesville, it became a moral issue, and to some degree, it was a commercial issue.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: A moral issue, really? I mean, do you get the sense, were they getting pressure from customers? Were they worried about the profits? I mean, how do you apportion a percentage there of what drove it?

ANDREW ROSS SORKIN: If you look at — if you look at the councils and the number of executives on it, many of them privately were not Trump supporters. And so, when I said it was a moral issue for them, I can't tell you how many of them privately will tell you that their family was upset with them about being on these councils and what it said about them and what it said about their companies and the idea of affiliating with the president in a formal way.

And that's different than some of the relationships that businesses had with presidents in the past. President Obama didn't have councils like, this but there were meetings. This was different. This was a formal council that you were signing on to, and a lot of people looked at it as an explicit or explicit endorsement of the president.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I know that you believe that Merck CEO Ken Frazier was really the one who deserves some credit for taking a pretty risky stance when he did.

ANDREW ROSS SORKIN: So many of these CEOs either wanted to get off or find a way out, and virtually all of them were unwilling to do so, because they truly did fear the president. They feared the — what he was going to say on Twitter about them. He feared or they feared what and how he might retaliate against them.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And Frazier got beat up for it.

ANDREW ROSS SORKIN: Not only did he get beat up for it. I would suggest there was more courage in Ken Frazier's decision, in part because if you think about who the largest customer in the world is for Merck, it is the U.S. government. And so, to the degree that you would have anxiety about the CEO of the U.S. government, if you will, in President Trump and taking a position that would be on the other side, and to do so so publicly.

But that move really did lead the other CEOs to stand up, and they were able to stand up, though, in large part because there was safety in numbers at that point.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, going forward, what does this mean for the business community's relationship with the administration?

ANDREW ROSS SORKIN: Well, that is the big question. And part of it is — you know, part of it we saw last week to some degree was symbolic. It was symbolic about the way the business community relates to the president. But in truth, I would suggest, and I don't want to say it's been overstated what happened last week. What happened last week was important, very important.

But I do think that beneath the surface, a lot of these companies still are going to be engaged in policy. They're still going to be advocating and lobbying for some of their both pet issues and larger issues, whether it be tax reform or how healthcare gets or doesn't get reformed, or how an infrastructure project or plan gets implemented and how that therefore relates to their businesses. They will still be at that table. They just may not be at the table personally with President Trump with cameras in the room.

But have no illusion. Business is not walking away from Washington, D.C., any time soon, in part, and I hope this doesn't sound too cynical, because that's where the money is.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, business as usual, except no more photo-ops with the president?

ANDREW ROSS SORKIN: I think that's going to be part of it. And I think there's going to be a sensitivity at least for some period about what kind of relationship there is. Can you go to the White House at all? Can you communicate with the president? Can you communicate with his people? Are they going to use intermediaries?

You know, the president over the next several years, I imagine, will take trips to China and other places where historically oftentimes CEOs and other business leaders have gone to conferences and such. Will they — will they still go to those things? Or will they send delegates there?

These are some real questions, and does President Trump continue to hold it against them?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: We'll keep watching. Andrew Ross Sorkin, thank you so much.

ANDREW ROSS SORKIN: Thank you.

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