But it was never clear exactly what the councils were doing other than providing photo opportunities. There has been little to show from their meetings, and from the start, virtually all of the news about the councils involved controversy, with various members quitting in protest: Travis Kalanick of Uber due to the Muslim ban, Robert Iger of Disney and Elon Musk of Tesla over Trump pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, and then Frazier and many others over the Charlottesville incident. With every withdrawal, the remaining CEOs found themselves forced to explain why they continued to work with Trump. In many cases this led executives to repudiate his policies and stress that they were staying on for the good of the economy.
The dance was always an awkward one. “It’s a tough situation for CEOs,” Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, told Fort Worth’s Star-Telegram. “You want to make nice with the president because you’re a public company and you have shareholders, and it’s hard to balance doing the right financial thing versus doing what they think is the right thing, whatever your political beliefs are.” (Trump and Cuban are often at odds. Once, Trump said Cuban “backed me big-time but I wasn’t interested in taking all of his calls. He’s not smart enough to run for president!”) With Trump condemning the violence on “many sides” and saying that there were “fine people” marching with the white nationalists in Charlottesville, that dance became untenable.
Frazier quit. Trump lashed out. “They’re not taking their job seriously as it pertains to this country,” he said at a news conference held in Trump Tower. “Some of the folks that will leave—they’re leaving out of embarrassment because they make their products outside” the country, he added. Brian Krzanich of Intel and Kevin Plank of Under Armour also quit, and were soon joined by Scott Paul of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO, and Inge Thulin of 3M. According to The New York Times, executives on the business panel agreed they should disband it on a conference call on Wednesday morning, and members of the manufacturing council were reportedly planning, before Trump’s announcement, to hold a similar call on Wednesday afternoon.
While the relationship between Trump and these individual executives soured in an extraordinary public fashion, it is clear that much of the substantive romance between Trump and big business remains. The White House has not made any meaningful progress on tax reform or infrastructure, two business-friendly issues he made promises about during the campaign. But after he promised to drain the swamp, he has installed dozens of lobbyists across the government: lobbyists for insurers and the pharmaceutical industry in the Department of Health and Human Services, lobbyists for defense contractors at the Pentagon, lobbyists for the construction industry at the Labor Department, and on and on. A lawyer who built a career helping banks skirt regulations now manages one of the country’s most powerful financial regulators.