Update: On July 27, the Scouts issued an apology to “those in our Scouting family who were offended” from the organization’s “Chief Scouting Executive,” Michael Surbaugh. “We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program,” he wrote.
Randall Stephenson is probably best known in corporate circles as the chairman and chief executive of telecommunications giant AT&T, but he has also been president of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) since May of 2016.
The two roles are suddenly presenting him with an unusual conflict. Some parents are angry at the scouting group’s management after US president Donald Trump gave a political speech at the scouts’ “annual jamboree” on Monday in West Virginia. The tens of thousands of boys in attendance, aged 11 to 17, booed Hillary Clinton and former president Barack Obama, and cheered as Trump derided the Washington, DC “cesspool” and “fake media.”
The BSA’s Facebook page has been inundated with comments by parents threatening to pull their children and donations from the 2.4 million-strong organization unless the group denounces the speech, which they say was not in keeping with the group’s values of kindness and courtesy. The sitting US president is traditionally the honorary president of the BSA, but past presidents have generally kept politics out of speeches to the scouts.
The BSA said it was “wholly non-partisan” in a statement this morning, and that the invitation for the president to visit was a long-standing tradition, not an endorsement. However, parents and ex-scouts want an apology from the BSA for letting the jamboree become politicized.
But to issue such an apology might put Stephenson in a tough spot. In his other role, he has been trying to court Trump and the administration as AT&T shepherds its $85 billion deal for Time Warner though the Department of Justice (DOJ). The department is currently conducting an antitrust review, which evaluates how the deal would affect competition in the industry. The process is supposed to be private and apolitical, but there are concerns in Congress that president Trump is trying to influence it.
Trump said on the campaign trail that the deal “concentrates too much power in the hands of too few,” and since he was elected president has railed against Time Warner’s CNN and its coverage of his administration. White House advisors have reportedly considered (paywall) using their influence on the deal as leverage against CNN, and one advisor said the administration won’t support the merger if CNN president Jeff Zucker remains in his role. Trump, meanwhile, has been publicly dressing down the DOJ’s top official, attorney general Jeff Sessions, over other matters.
Stephenson himself has had “several calls” with the president to lobby for the deal, the New York Post reports, and visited him at Trump Tower before the inauguration. He also attended a White House meeting on technology in June, where he was seated next to Trump, who praised him for his management style.
The BSA and AT&T didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.