Schwarzman-led CEO council disbands after uproar over Trump and Charlottesville

  • CEO forum advised White House, led by Blackstone chairman
  • Members decided to disband after Trump Charlottesville remarks
  • After initial fanfare, advisory councils hadn’t met in months

A White House advisory council led by Blackstone Group’s Stephen Schwarzman has disbanded in the wake of President Donald Trump’s widely criticized response to white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In a statement, members of the President’s Strategic and Policy Forum declared that “intolerance, racism and violence have absolutely no place in this country and are an affront to core American values.” The CEOs — including Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan ChaseLarry Fink of BlackRock, Rich Lesser of Boston Consulting Group, and Mark Weinberger of EY, among others — came under pressure to dissociate themselves from remarks by Trump that equated racist demonstrators with the protesters who opposed them.

One person was killed and 19 were injured when a white nationalist drove his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters.

“We believe the debate over Forum participation has become a distraction from our well-intentioned and sincere desire to aid vital policy discussions on how to improve the lives of everyday Americans,” the group’s statement explained. “As such, the President and we are disbanding the Forum. Job creation and supporting an inclusive pro-growth agenda remain vitally important to the progress of our country. As Americans, we are all united in our desire to see our country succeed.”

Ambitious agenda

When the Forum was established, in December of last year, it was announced that members would meet frequently with Trump to offer their economic expertise. But on Aug. 2 Bloomberg reported that the strategy council and a complementary group, the Presidential Committee on American Manufacturing, hadn’t convened in months, with little to show for their initial, highly touted meetings.

At the Forum’s first session, on Feb. 3, Trump explained the key role played by Schwarzman: “Steve called me up the day after the election — it might have even been the same night, Jamie, to be honest with you. You know Steve … in fact, I think maybe one minute. And he said, ‘I’d like to put together a group of world-class leaders,’ and that’s what he’s done.  So good job, Steve.”

For his part, Schwarzman outlined an ambitious agenda: “We’re going to cover regulatory, I believe. We’re going to cover tax and trade, women in the workplace, infrastructure and education. And in each of those areas we’ll get suggestions, ways to make things happen, happen faster to improve the country.”

But there were already signs of trouble. The day before, Travis Kalanick of Uber resigned from the Forum to protest an executive order cracking down on Muslim immigration.

As trepidation about the Trump administration grew, Schwarzman remained strikingly upbeat: “You’re doing profound things,” he told the president at a White House event in April, “taking on enormous, embedded issues, and I think with the kind of effort that can be marshaled, you can do amazing things.” It was a stark contrast to Schwarzman’s view of President Barack Obama, whose tax proposals he famously compared to Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland. (Schwarzman later apologized “for what was an inappropriate analogy.”)

Further defections came after Trump’s decision to exit the Paris climate accord in early June, with Elon Musk of Tesla and Bob Iger of Disney both stepping down. But the crisis finally arrived after last weekend’s chaos in Charlottesville, where a rally called “Unite the Right” led to clashes that turned deadly on Saturday. The president’s halfhearted statements, which blamed “many sides” for the violence, led Merck Chief Executive Kenneth Frazier, one of the country’s most prominent black CEOs, to depart the manufacturing committee. The heads of Under Armour and Intel quickly followed suit.

News conference

The president compounded the problem on Tuesday with a truculent news conference from Trump Tower, ostensibly on infrastructure, during which he again faulted both sides and even defended some of the far-right demonstrators.

That seems to have sealed the deal for many of the remaining executives. By early Wednesday afternoon, news broke that the advisory groups were close to disbanding. Soon after those reports, Trump tweeted that he was shutting them down himself: “Rather than putting pressure on the businesspeople of the Manufacturing Council & Strategy & Policy Forum, I am ending both. Thank you all!”

Company memos from Larry Fink and Jamie Dimon denouncing Trump have been reported in the press. Schwarzman has not commented since Monday, when he issued a statement rejecting “bigotry, hatred and extremism” but refraining from criticism of the president. A spokesperson for Blackstone declined to comment, referring Buyouts to the statement from now defunct Strategic and Policy Forum.

Action Item: Read the statement from the President’s Strategic and Policy Forum:

President Donald Trump answers questions about his response to the violence, injuries and deaths at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville as he talks to the media in the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan on Aug. 15, 2017. Photo courtesy Reuters/Kevin Lamarque