Ken Frazier of Merck was the first to announce he was leaving. Then came Kevin Plank of Under Armour and Brian Krzanich of Intel.
There is no question why the three CEOs quit serving on US president Donald Trump’s manufacturing council—each departure was a direct response to Trump’s hesitance to condemn white-supremacist organizations by name. (CNN is reporting that a fourth member, Scott Paul, head of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, has also stepped down.)
The real question, according to former US Treasury secretary Larry Summers, is why any CEOs still remain. At this point, it’s clear that Trump isn’t listening to their advice, and making the case that staying on his advisory councils will have a positive influence no longer holds water. “No advisor committed to the bipartisan American traditions of government can possibly believe he or she is being effective at this point,” Summers, an economist who was also president of Harvard, argued in the Financial Times (paywall).
There are other ways to try to justify staying, but these explanations fall flat, too, said Summers. If the administration needs specific advice, a CEO doesn’t need to be on a council to provide it. And there’s no evidence a company’s business interests will suffer if its CEO abandons Trump; in fact, Merck’s share price rose yesterday. Staying on the council only lends Trump the prestige of the CEOs and their companies—while leaving might have some impact. “If a substantial group of CEOs resigned en masse, what realistically could the president do other than tweet his frustration and hopefully ultimately learn a lesson?” Summers wondered.
In November, Quartz asked Princeton philosopher Peter Singer about the ethics of taking a job in the Trump White House if you disagreed with the president’s positions. Singer argued you should accept the job and do your best to shape policies in the direction you prefer. If you discover you can’t and you resign, you’ll have much more credibility as a critic.
The CEOs who have quit Trump’s advisory councils seem to have reached that point. Some got there sooner than others, though. Uber’s Travis Kalanick and Disney’s Bob Iger are among those to have made early exits—well before the Aug. 12 demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Trump found reason to fault “many sides” instead of specifically denouncing the white nationalists who rallied there.