At the end of Trump era, an uneasy reckoning for corporate America

Donald Trump could sway a company with a tweet when he arrived in Washington.
Donald Trump could sway a company with a tweet when he arrived in Washington.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - Corporate America is parting with its CEO president - carefully.

Four years after Mr Donald Trump swept into the White House, cowing executives and shaking markets with tweet storms and tantrums, corporations that applauded when he cut taxes and red tape are struggling to come to grips with the havoc that's now followed.

After Mr Trump incited a mob of loyalists to storm the Capitol last Wednesday (Jan 6), prominent business figures swiftly condemned the violence - without mentioning the president by name. Only one major business group, the National Association of Manufacturers, singled him out. Even as the Trump administration comes to its chaotic end, with calls for the president to be immediately removed from office, the business world is stepping delicately.

When Mr Trump arrived in Washington, he could sway a company with a tweet. Now Facebook has suspended his account, at least through the end of his term, while Twitter has banned him permanently. Shopify, the Canadian company behind many e-commerce sites, said last Thursday that it had closed two online stores that sell red MAGA hats and other Trump paraphernalia.

"That's how quickly the worm turns," said Ms Davia Temin, founder of New York City crisis consultancy Temin and Co. "One needs to make a distinction between Trump the president, who you may or may not have made any comments about over the last four years, and the sedition, the attack on the Capitol that happened yesterday afternoon."

Even now, few of the responses challenge Mr Trump directly. The National Association of Manufacturers, which is typically seen as supportive of Republican policies, urged Mr Trump's Cabinet to consider ousting him using their authority of the 25th Amendment to the US Constitution, which allows such action when a president is deemed unfit to serve.

Ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's Homemade blasted Mr Trump in an eight-part tweet, summing it up with a call for him to resign or for the government to remove him.

But most of the condemnation was more generically focused on "elected officials" for their role in perpetuating the position that the election was fraudulent and encouraging the anger that boiled over into the deadly storming of the center of the US government. Like the powerful, evil wizard Voldemort in a Harry Potter book, Mr Trump was the protagonist who was not named.

"Today marks a sad and shameful chapter in our nation's history," Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook said in a Wednesday tweet. "Those responsible for this insurrection should be held to account, and we must complete the transition to President-elect Biden's administration. It's especially when they are challenged that our ideals matter most."

The CEOs of IBM, Coca-Cola, Pfizer, Dell Technologies, Cisco Systems, United Parcel Service, and General Motors made similar statements forcefully condemning the events without mentioning any politicians by name. The Business Roundtable, which is exclusively open to CEOs, blamed the violence on "elected officials' perpetuation of the fiction of a fraudulent 2020 presidential election".

The heads of Wall Street's biggest firms, from JPMorgan Chase & Co and Blackstone Group to Goldman Sachs and BlackRock, also called for an end to the violence. So did the CEO of Palantir Technologies, which includes Trump supporter Peter Thiel among its founders.

It's a tough situation for companies, which even as they have become comfortable taking positions on social issues, are less conditioned to direct involvement in a US presidential election, said Mr Fred Foulkes, a management professor at the Boston University Questrom School of Business.

As an example, American Electric Power, which is represented on the board of the National Association of Manufacturers, distanced itself from the direct call for Mr Trump's ouster. "We did not contribute to the NAM statement and did not vote on or approve it as a NAM member," the company said in a statement. It condemned the violence in a separate statement.

"If you're one of these big company CEOs, it's kind of expected that you say something now," Mr Foulkes said. "We're sort of getting to the point where if someone isn't commenting, you wonder 'why not?'"

Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, who led Republican efforts to challenge Mr Joe Biden's certification as president this week, has already faced repercussions. Publisher Simon & Schuster cancelled its plans to release Mr Hawley's book, The Tyranny Of Big Tech, citing his role in the tumult.

Even before the violence last Wednesday, the majority of 33 large company CEOs were in agreement that Mr Trump was attempting to overturn a democratically run election and that members of Congress who were assisting him were "aiding and abetting sedition", said Mr Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for leadership studies at the Yale School of Management.

He polled the executives on the topic last Tuesday in a hastily called "crisis caucus" of members of the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute. The executives were unanimous in saying that CEOs should warn lobbyists privately that their firms will no longer support "election result deniers" in Congress.

It was the first unanimous poll in 30 years for the group, spanning 105 summits and a handful of other crisis meetings, Mr Sonnenfeld said in an interview.

But with less than two weeks left before Mr Trump leaves office, it's probably too late for companies to speak out directly against him, said Ms Temin, the crisis consultant. She has been advising her clients to follow the playbook of condemning the violence without singling out the president.

"If you haven't made a whole series of comments throughout this four-year period, I do not believe this is the time to start," she said. "Now is the time to re-evaluate your corporate purpose, how that interacts with our democracy, and be on board in the next administration in a constructive way."