No one, except for white supremacists, seems happy with President Donald Trump’s doubling down on the “well BOTH SIDES were BAD” response to racially-motivated protests and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia this past weekend. That included business leaders who struggled with how to handle their public ties to the administration. Luckily for General Motors CEO Mary Barra—in a tougher position than most on a White House advisory business council—Trump himself took care of her Trump problem.
Today Trump announced that he would simply disband his White House advisory business councils, a decision that comes on the heels of several prominent corporate leaders deciding to quit them after Trump put Neo-Nazis on the same moral level as people who despise Neo-Nazis.
Before it was disbanded, The Wall Street Journal reported the leaders of 3M, General Electric, United Technologies and Campbell Soup all elected to quit the White House council on manufacturing.
This could be seen as a brave stand by corporate leaders against the violent racist behavior that Trump emboldened; it could also be seen as a cynical attempt to avoid boycotts and shareholder backlash over their being seen as doing business alongside Trump.
After all, Elon Musk famously also stepped down from the economic advisory council in June, after the U.S. decided to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords. Before that Musk explained his involvement as being part of the “greater good” and that, hey, maybe he could sway Trump in the right direction.
(A lot of people seem to carry that motivation. It never seems to work.)
Noticeably absent from the wave of resignations today was GM’s Mary Barra, who the business pubs were quick to point out was in a tough spot here. Leave, they said, and she closes the door to Trump and the government, and possibly alienates Trump-loving GM car buyers; stay on the council, and she looks like an asshole after Tuesday’s mess at Trump Tower.
From the WSJ:
GM and other auto makers have urged the Trump administration to ease the Obama-era regulations, which call for auto makers to sell vehicles that average 54.5 miles per gallon, or about 40 mpg in real-world driving, by 2025. The industry has warned that meeting the target would cost $200 billion and threaten jobs.
“For her, in particular, it’s a tough spot,” said Dan Hill, CEO of Hill Impact, a crisis communications firm. Ms. Barra must weigh the risk of drawing Mr. Trump’s ire by leaving the council against potential fallout on GM or its brands from a consumer backlash against CEOs who won’t speak out, he said.
Stephen Wade, a Utah car dealer and former chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association, said Ms. Barra must consider more than her own views in weighing whether to stay on.
“It could be that she believes it’s far more effective for GM and its shareholders if she hangs in there,” he said.
And also from Bloomberg:
At General Motors, Barra elected to stay on the White House’s Strategic and Policy Forum because she wants a voice in policy decisions and realizes she would face Trump’s wrath if she left, which could shred any chance of ever working with him, according to people familiar with the matter.
Emphasis mine, because it’s utterly fascinating that the CEO of General Electric was willing to tell Trump to fuck off, but the CEO of General Motors was not.
But today, Barra and GM got a different sort of bailout than the kind they’re used to, as Trump decided it’s all over and everyone can just go home, thanks for playing:
It is an interesting spot for business leaders to be in—an all but unprecedented one, in fact. On one hand, they need access to the government for all sorts of pragmatic reasons, but on the other, if they stay loyal to this government, it makes them look like sycophants to an increasingly unhinged president and the white nationalists who take their cues from him.
Do I feel bad for America’s CEOs? Not really, because I feel like we as a country just proved we have bigger shit to worry about first.
Update: Earlier this afternoon, Barra put out this statement:
The President and members of the President’s Strategic and Policy Forum have disbanded the forum. General Motors is about unity and inclusion and so am I.
Recent events, particularly those in Charlottesville, Virginia, and its aftermath, require that we come together as a country and reinforce values and ideals that unite us - tolerance, inclusion and diversity – and speak against those which divide us – racism, bigotry and any politics based on ethnicity.
I am committed to our employees, customers, and shareholders, and I am very proud of our work in support of American manufacturing — from designing, manufacturing and selling outstanding trucks, crossovers and cars in the U.S. to advancing safer, simpler and sustainable transportation solutions for the future.