To anyone watching, it was clear why the private-sector heavyweights advising US president Donald Trump dissolved their councils in August, in the days after the White House’s embarrassing response to a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Less obvious is how exactly the business leaders made the decision to disband.
On Sept. 12, Blackstone Group CEO Steve Schwarzman, who chaired one of those now-disbanded councils, the Strategic and Policy Forum, offered his account of what happened. He was interviewed on stage about it at Delivering Alpha, an annual investor conference in New York hosted by CNBC and Institutional Investor.
Schwarzman’s remarks on the topic were brief, but they included several interesting details:
“This was a complex time around Charlottesville,” Schwarzman said. “What happened is, people who are running public companies at that time were concerned about employee reaction to what the president said or didn’t say. There were customer issues for those [companies] where some of the CEOs felt they were under pressure. There were shareholders who were unhappy with people’s affiliation.”
“So we actually had a very interesting, orderly process,” Schwarzman said. “I asked each person what they wanted to do, and I gave them one minute each. I wasn’t interested in anyone’s life history, it was really, sort of, what do you want to do?
“We did it alphabetically. I’m a great believer in order. By the time you got to ‘W,’ it didn’t much matter… Virtually anyone running a public company who’s in that group could not deal with the pressure from their constituents.”
“So people were really under legitimate, astonishing pressure,” he said. “I was accused by people of being a Nazi. I mean, I’m Jewish.”
Schwarzman has himself used the incendiary label: In 2010, he infamously compared US president Barack Obama’s attempt to close a tax loophole that benefits hedge funders to Hitler’s invasion of Poland. (Incidentally, Trump wants to close the same loophole, as Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin indicated during his appearance today at the same investor conference where Schwarzman spoke.)
“No, I wasn’t outraged,” Schwarzman said. “I don’t know where the New York Times got that one.”