Merck CEO resigns from White House council to 'take a stand against intolerance, then Trump slams him

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as Kenneth Frazier, chairman and CEO of Merck, looks on during a listening session with manufacturing CEOs on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as Kenneth Frazier, chairman and CEO of Merck, looks on during a listening session with manufacturing CEOs on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

WASHINGTON — The chief executive of pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. publicly resigned from a White House manufacturing council Monday, declaring he felt “a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.”

The move by Kenneth Frazier, one of corporate America’s leading African-American executives, came after President Donald Trump was criticized for not explicitly condemning white supremacists after violent clashes with counterprotesters turned deadly in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday.

Trump quickly lashed out at Frazier on Twitter.

“Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President’s Manufacturing Council, he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!” Trump wrote less than an hour after Merck posted Frazier’s statement on Twitter.

About four hours later, Trump delivered a statement from the White House in which he denounced the hate groups at the center of Saturday’s violence.

“Racism is evil and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans,” Trump said.

Frazier was among more than two dozen corporate executives and union officials advising the Trump administration on boosting American manufacturing. Now he has become the latest high-profile CEO to leave a White House business council in recent weeks in protest of Trump’s statements or actions.

Frazier’s move was “a profile in business courage,” said John Paluszek, a former senior counsel at the public relations firm Ketchum.


“When you’re working in a capitalist system with private owners and your employers and customers, it does get a little bit sticky,” said Paluszek, who founded Business in Society, a website dealing with corporate social responsibility. “That’s why I think an element of courage comes into the discussion.”

In Frazier’s case, his personal experiences as an African-American “comes to bear here,” Paluszek said. “CEOs are humans.”

After Trump’s initial comments in the wake of the deadly Charlottesville protest, blaming the violence “on many sides” without specifically denouncing the white nationalists who were at the center of the clashes, Merck posted a statement on Twitter from Frazier announcing his resignation from the council.

“America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal,” Frazier said.

“As CEO of Merck and as a matter of personal conscience, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism,” he said.

Many on Twitter noted that Trump responded more quickly and specifically to Frazier’s resignation than he did to the violence in Charlottesville.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said that Trump “proves again he’s capable of immediate and personal condemnation. Why not for white supremacists?”

Other members of the council, which met with Trump shortly after his inauguration to provide their perspective on promoting more American manufacturing, decried the Charlottesville violence but did not say they were stepping down.


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General Electric Corp. said it was a “proudly inclusive company” that has “no tolerance for hate, bigotry or racism.”

Its chairman, Jeffrey Immelt, would remain on the council, a GE spokesperson said, because “with more than 100,000 employees in the United States, it is important for GE to participate in the discussion on how to drive growth and productivity in the U.S.”

Andrew Liveris, the chief executive of Dow Chemical Co., also appeared to be staying on the council.

He declared in a statement on Twitter that there was “no room for hatred, racism or bigotry” at his company.

But Liveris said Dow would “continue to work to strengthen the social and economic fabric of the communities where it operates — including supporting policies that help create employment opportunities in manufacturing and rebuild the American workforce.”

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO labor union, issued a statement Sunday calling out the “hateful views and violent actions of white supremacists and neo-Nazis.”

“Any response must begin with our leaders, starting with President Trump, acknowledging this for what it is: domestic terrorism rooted in bigotry,” he said. A spokesman did not return an email request Monday about whether Trumka planned to step down from the council.


Kevin Plank, chief executive of Under Armour Inc., said in statement the company issued on Twitter on Monday that “There is no place for racism or discrimination in this world.” The company did not respond to an email asking whether Plank would remain on the council.

Paluszek said executives on the council faced a difficult decision.


“It is a tough call for a lot of CEOs, not only on this political issue but also on many other issues ... to find the balance between what is in the interest of the stakeholders of the company and what is in the public interest,” he said.

In June, Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla Motors Inc. and SpaceX, and Robert Iger, chief executive of the Walt Disney Co., announced they were stepping down from White House councils after Trump announced he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate accord.

Musk was on the manufacturing council as well as the White House’s Strategic and Policy Advisory Council, a group of about 18 current and former business leaders and other experts who were given the task of providing Trump with their input about his economic agenda. Iger also served on the policy advisory council.



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