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Why It Matters When CEOs Stand Up to Trump

Aug 14, 2017

On Saturday, white nationalists gathered in Charlottesville for a “Unite the Right” march. The day ended in violence and tragedy, including the death of Heather Heyer, 32, who was killed when a man intentionally drove his car into a group of counter-protestors.

For hours, as reports streamed in about violence in Charlottesville, the president remained silent. When he finally did address the situation that afternoon, his comments were significant for what they failed to say. When speaking on Saturday against the violence that erupted at a march organized by alt-right leaders, Trump didn’t denounce white supremacists or neo-Nazis, but placed blame “on many sides.”

It was an uncharacteristically tepid response for a president who has repeatedly and viciously attacked a long list of groups and individuals—everyone from his Attorney General, to Muslim extremists, to the New York Times.

Meanwhile, as Fortune’s editor Clifton Leaf noted, “virtually every Republican and Democratic leader—other than the President—denounced the attack for what it was: an act of terror.”

On Monday, Kenneth Frazier, the CEO of U.S. drugmaker Merck and one of the few African-American chief executives of a Fortune 500 company, announced he had resigned from the president’s American Manufacturing Council in protest over Trump’s comments.

“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,” he said in a statement posted on Twitter.

“As CEO of Merck and as a matter of personal conscience, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.”

Trump, who waited 48 hours before finally condemning "the KKK, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists" for their role in Charlottesville, attacked Frazier's decision to resign in just 54 minutes.

“Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President’s Manufacturing Council, he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!” he tweeted.

Frazier became only the 4th business leader to step down from a post in one of the Trump's advisory councils. Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Disney's Robert Iger resigned from his Strategic and Policy Forum in June after the president withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord. Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick left the group after the president's executive order on immigration which banned travel from 7 majority Muslim countries.

While Fortune 500 CEOs have traditionally been loath to make political statements, their words and actions hold particular weight for a president who touts his business acumen and deal-making prowess, and has taken credit for improvements to the U.S. economy since his inauguration.

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