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CEOs could tame Trump, if they wanted to

President Trump Holds Policy Forum With Business Leaders Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

From the night of his election until roughly mid-afternoon on Wednesday, business leaders tiptoed quietly around Donald Trump. They soft-pedaled their dissent on his trade and immigration policies. They did not howl when he singled out individual companies on social media and tried to shame them into his preferred business decisions. They acted as if they were in a delicate negotiation where Trump held all the cards and their profits were at stake.

That’s clearly no longer the case, if it ever was. The events of this week, including an open corporate rebellion over Trump’s refusal to decisively condemn white supremacists, should prove this to America’s CEOs: They have the upper hand now. The president needs them more than they need him.

They should wield that knowledge accordingly.

If they want Trump to change his act, business leaders could simply mount a coordinated and sustained pressure campaign against his flirtations with white nationalists — one on par with, say, their pushback against the Obama administration over the bank regulations it proposed after the 2008 financial crisis. Such a campaign need not jeopardize the tax cuts and deregulation executives want from the White House. It might actually help their cause.

Every executive understands the importance of bargaining power — the ability to force another party into your preferred outcome in a negotiation — so it should be easy for America’s CEOs to see that by acting together, they have massive power over Trump.

The timeline of a business rebellion

Consider the following chain of events from this week:

  • The chief executive of the pharmaceutical giant Merck quit a Trump manufacturing advisory panel on Monday in the wake of the president’s tepid response to a white nationalist rally that turned violent and eventually fatal in Charlottesville, Virginia. “I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism,” Kenneth Frazier, the CEO, said in a statement. Trump responded with a mocking tweet:
  • On Tuesday, after the CEOs of Under Armour and Intel also quit the council, Trump claimed he could replace them easily:
  • But on Wednesday, less than a day after Trump held a press conference in which he praised the white nationalist march that preceded the Charlottesville violence, a flurry of CEOs also quit the council. Leaders of another business advisory group told Trump they were shutting it down in protest. Faced with such mass defections, the president didn’t lash out — he tried to save face:

There seems to be safety in numbers for business leaders who push back at Trump. This has also worked at the state level for executives, who, as Greg Ip noted Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal, have banded together to defeat proposals they fear will harm their bottom lines, such as a bill in Texas to restrict bathroom access for transgender people. As Ip writes (emphasis added):

Politically, business leaders are risk-averse. They prioritize stability and the status quo. What has changed is the definition of the status quo. Gay and transgender rights, and taking action on climate change, were once liberal causes. They are now largely mainstream, particularly in big cities that are home to corporate head offices and the educated workers they covet. Businesses have adapted their own plans, policies and attitudes to this new mainstream. White supremacy, of course, has long been rejected across the political spectrum, but for some companies, merely being associated with a president who didn’t clearly condemn it poses risks.

This changes the cost-benefit calculus for corporate executives: Speak up and embroil yourself in unwelcome controversy, or stay silent and invite the opprobrium of customers, employees, social media, foreign governments, and, for some, their own families and consciences. Increasingly, they have concluded that inaction is the riskier path.

Later in the piece, Ip adds, “This pushback against the right on many issues means Mr. Trump and Republicans can’t count on reflexive support from business simply because they promise to cut taxes and regulations.” But that hasn’t really been true for most of Trump’s presidency.

Corporate pushback to Trump has been very mild

Business leaders have denounced some of Trump’s policies, most notably his attempt to ban travelers from several majority-Muslim countries, but they’ve been much louder in their support for his efforts to peel back Obama-era regulations and, of course, to reduce business tax rates. They’ve held him to a very different standard than they held Obama to on trade, taking pains to accentuate their areas of agreement with him.

(In general, business lobbyists were far more antagonistic to Obama than they have been to Trump, criticizing him relentlessly during his efforts to pass the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill, and complaining throughout his presidency that his regulations were killing jobs.)

Stepping gingerly around Trump would be rational behavior for a group that is worried it could lose out on a big policy initiative — and for CEOs who fear their companies could get the short end of what could be the most sweeping rewrite of the tax code in 30 years. But they shouldn’t worry anymore. Trump is in desperate need of a legislative victory on tax reform — and he needs business leaders to help him secure it.

There’s no indication that he might, out of spite, abandon his deregulation efforts at the Environmental Protection Agency or elsewhere. He tweeted at two companies negatively this week, Merck and Amazon, and neither took anything close to a meaningful hit in its stock price.

Perhaps most importantly, Trump needs help from business groups to keep his congressional majorities — and preserve any hopes of passing his legislative agenda on taxes, health care, infrastructure, and more — in the 2018 midterms.

Business knows how to be fierce when it wants to

That need gives business leaders a lot of leverage, of a type they’ve been very happy to wield in the past: In the 2010 election, angered over Obama’s health care and financial regulation bills, the US Chamber of Commerce alone mobilized tens of millions of dollars in ad spending to help Republicans win back the House. Threatening to sit out 2018 would put immediate pressure on Trump, or on congressional Republicans who could then pressure Trump, to denounce white nationalism completely and without qualification.

Threatening to withhold contributions and ad spending for Republican candidates would be a massive power move by business leaders. But some signs suggest they might be ready to consider it. Trump’s Charlottesville comments seem to have crossed a red line. As Jamie Dimon, the head of JPMorgan Chase and the leader of the Business Roundtable lobbying group, wrote to his employees on Wednesday:

I strongly disagree with President Trump's reaction to the events that took place in Charlottesville over the past several days. Racism, intolerance and violence are always wrong. The equal treatment of all people is one of our nation’s bedrock principles. There is no room for equivocation here: the evil on display by these perpetrators of hate should be condemned and has no place in a country that draws strength from our diversity and humanity.

“No place” does not, as a rule, include an exemption for “except during a policy debate that matters to my company’s bottom line.” Dimon and other executives now appear to believe that associating with Trump threatens their business more than any tax cut could ever help it. It’s also possible that profit isn’t the only thing at play.

As Matt Levine, who pens a brilliant financial newsletter for Bloomberg, put it on Wednesday morning:

I have to confess that it seems odd to me to denounce Nazism out of fealty to shareholder value. You can just denounce Nazism because you're not a Nazi! This is a financial newsletter, but I have never assumed that the operations of capital are autonomous and self-executing, or that executives are robots who are programmed to maximize shareholder value to the exclusion of all other considerations. Corporations exist in society, and are not above society's concerns. Businesses operate through human beings, who remain human even in their roles as CEOs. One would hope.

One would, indeed.