President Donald Trump shut down two major business advisory councils Wednesday, his hand forced by mounting criticism and the resignations of top corporate executives over his comments on last weekend's violence in Charlottesville, Va.
Among those to step down from Trump's manufacturing council was 3M CEO Inge Thulin, who said in a statement Wednesday morning that the group was "no longer an effective vehicle" for the Maplewood-based company. Shortly thereafter, Trump said he was discontinuing both that group and his Strategy & Policy Forum.
"Rather than putting pressure on the businesspeople of the Manufacturing Council & Strategy & Policy Forum, I am ending both," Trump wrote in a tweet. "Thank you all!"
The members of at least one of the groups had already decided to dissolve it on their own earlier in the day. JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, a member of the Strategy & Policy Forum, told employees in a note that his group decided to disband after Trump's news conference on Tuesday, in which the president appeared to show sympathy for some of the people who marched alongside Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va.
Stephen A. Schwarzman, the chief executive of the Blackstone Group and one of Trump's closest business confidants, had organized a conference call Wednesday morning for members of the forum. After a discussion among a dozen prominent CEOs, the decision was made to abandon the group, people with knowledge of details of the call told The New York Times.
A quarter of the members of the manufacturing group had already resigned by late morning Wednesday, starting with Merck Chief Executive Ken Frazier, one of the few African-Americans represented among the business leaders advising Trump. Wednesday's departures of Thulin and Campbell Soup Co. CEO Denise Morrison brought the total to seven.
Thulin said in his statement that sustainability, diversity and inclusion have been "my personal values and also fundamental" to 3M.
The dissolution of the councils was a remarkable development for Trump, who has promoted his corporate experience and ability to realize America's business potential as one of his chief qualifications for office. It also marks a new low for a president who has alternatively praised and attacked the decisions of corporate leaders, sometimes making unverified or false claims, and whose policy choices on issues such as immigration and climate change have been criticized as anti-business.
Many corporate leaders have remained close to the White House, believing that having a voice at the table was better than not having one.
They also hoped to win favor as Washington eyed major changes to the tax code and pursued infrastructure spending that could be worth trillions.
"He had put them in a very difficult position," said Anat R. Admati, a professor of finance and economics at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. "This has ruined his relationships with some of them."
The decision to disband the councils offered the companies a chance to sever ties as one and not leave any CEO isolated. Some appeared willing to wait it out on Monday and earlier Tuesday as the White House tried to clean up Trump's initial comments on the white power rally in Virginia, but the president's news conference at Trump Tower on Tuesday proved a breaking point.
Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky, who had previously said he would remain on the manufacturing council, announced that Trump's latest remarks were not sustainable.
"The president's most recent statements equating those who are motivated by race-based hate with those who stand up against hatred are unacceptable and has changed our decision to participate in the White House Manufacturing Advisory Council," Gorsky said.
General Electric chairman Jeff Immelt, who was also on the manufacturing advisory group, made a similar argument, saying in a statement that he had decided to resign after finding Trump's comments on Tuesday "deeply troubling."
"The committee I joined had the intention to foster policies that promote American manufacturing and growth," Immelt said. "However, given the ongoing tone of the discussion, I no longer feel that this council can accomplish these goals."
Trump's comments were met with a firestorm of condemnation on social media, with many people encouraging the CEOs on the councils to resign. Online and phone campaigns and petitions erupted across the country, led by groups such as the liberal Center For American Progress Action Fund, Care2 Petition, and the racial justice organization Color of Change.
Care2 collected 9,000 online signatures in 24 hours. "Reaction was very quick and would have continued to build had [Trump] not disbanded the council," said Care2 spokeswoman Alison Perris. "The fact that the CEOs first stepped down speaks volumes to their commitment to our Constitution and who we are as a country. What they did was great and remarkable. They listened to their customers." Had they not, Care2 was prepared to protest at the various company headquarters, Perris said.
University of St. Thomas professor emeritus Fred Zimmerman said that he had expected 3M's Thulin to be thoughtful and not make a rash decision about Trump's council. Thulin's decision was "carefully considered," Zimmerman said.
The panels have not been seen to be particularly effective. After a few high-profile events early in Trump's presidency, the groups had few meetings.
"So far they haven't done much," Stanford's Admati said. "They had a few meetings with a bunch of fanfare, but it was more symbolic than anything else."
Staff writer Dee DePass, The Washington Post and The New York Times contributed to this report.