President Donald Trump is disbanding a pair of White House advisory councils that were staffed by corporate chief executives.
CEOs, starting with Merck's Kenneth Frazier, have been resigning since Saturday, when Trump blamed both sides for the weekend violence in Charlottesville, Va., between white supremacists and counterprotesters. The resignations accelerated after Trump on Tuesday again blamed "both sides."
Trump tweeted that "rather than putting pressure on the businesspeople of the Manufacturing Council & Strategy & Policy Forum, I am ending both. Thank you all!" However, in earlier tweets he assailed the CEOs who left as "grandstanders" and said he had plenty of executives available to take their place. The president added that he believes economic growth in the U.S. will heal its racial divide.
Like several other corporate leaders, Alex Gorsky, chairman and CEO of Johnson & Johnson, said that intolerance and racism have no place in U.S. society but was willing to stay on the council.
"We must engage if we hope to change the world and those who lead it," he said in a statement.
A White House official downplayed the importance of the manufacturing council and a separate policy and strategy forum featuring corporate leaders. The official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss private conversations, said the panels were informal rather than a set body of advisers. The departures, the official said, were unlikely to hurt the administration's plans to overhaul taxes and regulations.
Many corporate leaders have faced a lose-lose scenario in which any choice involving politics can alienate customers, not to mention a U.S. president who has shown a willingness to personally negotiate government contracts.
Trump criticized Frazier, one of only four African-Americans leading a Fortune 500 company, almost immediately Monday over drug prices, and again Tuesday for having factories overseas. Merck has 25,000 U.S. employees in all 50 states and has invested $50 billion in research and development since 2010, primarily in the United States.