Aug. 2, 2017
By Matt Townsend, Shannon Pettypiece and Joe Deaux
Elon Musk of Tesla and Walt Disney’s Bob Iger have quit. Jeffrey Immelt of General Electric and JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon have dissented.
President Donald Trump’s business brain trust — originally these executives, plus some 50 other chief executive officers chosen to help shape White House policy — has so far come up short on big ideas.
In fact, there’s been little activity for the strategy and policy forum and the manufacturing group, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified. After initial meetings early in Trump’s presidency — which the White House promoted with great fanfare — his administration hasn’t convened the groups for months or set firm dates for future meetings, according to the people.
As turmoil has engulfed Washington, some prominent business leaders, including several of these informal advisers, have begun to distance themselves from the president. Tesla Inc. CEO Musk and Walt Disney Co. CEO Iger went even further, quitting in June after Trump withdrew from the Paris climate accord. Former Uber Technologies Inc. CEO Travis Kalanick quit in February, following Trump’s controversial executive order on immigration.
It’s a remarkable turnabout for the first CEO president, who pitched himself during the campaign as a savvy dealmaker who’d cut taxes and reduce regulations to unleash U.S. companies.
After vowing to impose business discipline on Washington and surrounding himself with executives, he’s presided over a chaotic administration that’s struggled to deliver business-like results. He has been pushing to cut corporate tax rates — an issue dear to CEOs — but the effort is log-jammed behind the Obamacare battle and multiple investigations of Russia’s interference in the election, including possible ties to Trump’s team.
The manufacturing group spearheaded by Dow Chemical Co. CEO Andrew Liveris hasn’t met in five months. Ford Motor Co. CEO Mark Fields was ousted by the automaker’s board in May and hasn’t been replaced. And the strategy and policy forum, led by Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman, last convened on April 11, despite the president saying he’d like it to get together monthly.
“The purpose of this group isn’t for general discussion, which is okay,” Schwarzman said at the first meeting Feb. 3. “But the real purpose is to get things done, to advise the government as to areas where we can do things a lot better as a country, for all Americans, and de-bottleneck some things.”
Christine Anderson, a spokeswoman for Blackstone, declined to comment. A person familiar with the forum said scheduling has been a problem, and the goal is to meet in the fall. Schwarzman and a handful of other CEOs from the group participated in discussions last month between top U.S. and Chinese economic officials and executives. The talks broke up, with the two superpowers unable to produce a joint statement.
Liveris, an outspoken supporter of the president, said after the February manufacturing meeting the executives would come back in two months with solutions ranging from rebuilding infrastructure to regulatory reform.
Rachelle Schikorra, a Dow spokeswoman, said in an email the group had a “very busy and productive” second quarter. Some members contributed “subject matter experts” and engaged in “information exchanges” before Trump signed an executive order June 15 to expand apprenticeship programs, which the group discussed. She directed questions about another meeting to the White House, which hasn’t made any public announcements recently about either group.
“We spent the first few months of the administration meeting with hundreds of CEOs to listen and are now putting those learnings into action,” a White House official said. “The roundtables and council meetings have directly impacted the administration’s policies in areas like workforce development, deregulation and tax reform. We will continue to meet with and engage with CEOs across all relevant policies.”
A lot has happened since April to sour the president’s relationship with industry chieftains. Namely, Trump announced June 1 that he would withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate, prompting criticism across corporate America. In addition to the departures of Musk and Iger from the strategy and policy forum, other members of the groups also disagreed.
“Collaboration is a good thing between nations,” JPMorgan CEO Dimon told Bloomberg Television. “Obviously the Trump administration felt differently about that, but we wish they’d stayed in.”
General Electric Co.’s then-CEO Immelt tweeted he was “disappointed” with the decision, adding “climate change is real” and the onus now falls on industry to lead.
Executives who aren’t in the groups also expressed concern, with Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s Lloyd Blankfein taking to Twitter for the first time to deride the move.
Meanwhile, FedEx Corp. CEO Fred Smith — who also isn’t in either group — is spearheading creation of an alternative tax-overhaul plan amid divisions in Washington over proposals the administration and Congress have offered.
“We at FedEx, like many major U.S. companies, are concerned the window for tax reform is closing,” Smith said in a June 26 email. “Our current federal tax system is simply not globally competitive, retarding investment and the high-paying jobs that follow.”