Frantic Phoning Among C.E.O.s: How to Address Trump Ban?

Protesters hold banners during a demonstration against President Trump's immigration ban at Portland International Airport in Portland, Oregon on January 29, 2017.
Alex Milan Tracy | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

The phone calls flew back and forth among the nation's top chief executives over the weekend, all asking the same questions: "What are you going to say publicly about Trump's executive order? And what can we say about it without becoming his next punching bag?"

At the annual Alfalfa Club dinner in Washington — a private affair that many prominent executives attended Saturday night — one person later described being buttonholed by a rival C.E.O. who asked how he could condemn President Trump's order "without poking the bear." Another wondered aloud whether an invitation to meet with Mr. Trump at the White House would be withdrawn if he spoke out. And yet another worried about the prospect of a boycott of their companies' products depending on the acerbity of their words.

Welcome to the new reality for corporate America.

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Last fall, John Chipman, the director-general and chief executive of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, advanced the notion that in our globalized world, "every company needs a foreign policy." Now, our largest companies also have to think about having a domestic policy — and possibly a moral policy, too.

For corporate executives, the decision about whether to speak out against a policy from Mr. Trump so early in his administration has clearly been nerve-racking.

While it may appear as though a tidal wave of executives has come forward to condemn Mr. Trump's executive order over immigration during the last 48 hours, each did so with a different flavor and tone — and most didn't go public until some of their rivals and peers did first, as they sought safety in numbers.

Much of the early criticism came from the West Coast: Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook weighed in first, and then Tim Cook of Apple as well as Howard Schultz of Starbucks, who pledged to hire 10,000 refugees.

But other big firms, including those on Wall Street and in the consumer-goods sector, took much longer to respond — if at all — because of worries about blowback from regulators and customers.

And for good reason: Mr. Schultz's comments prompted calls for a boycott from Trump supporters who started the hashtag #boycottStarbucks on Twitter. But there was a counterpunch. For every tweet about plans to boycott, someone else tweeted something like this: "There is a #boycottStarbucks going around because they're pledging to hire refugees, you know what that means? Time to get some Starbucks."

Coca-Cola didn't say anything until late Monday, when the chief executive, Muhtar Kent, said the company opposed the travel ban. Many other large companies have so far remained silent on the issue. Among them are Blackstone Group, Disney, General Motors and Pepsico.

And while the criticism (although limited) was real, few took shots directly at Mr. Trump, for fear of retribution. The harshest comment from a C.E.O. of a large, public company appeared to come from Reed Hastings of Netflix, who directly named the president: "Trump's actions are hurting Netflix employees around the world, and are so un-American it pains us all."

(It's easy to surmise that Netflix could soon be on the losing end of Mr. Trump's possible plan to upend net-neutrality laws.)

But most top executives took a more circuitous route. The wording was purposely dripping with politeness: "This executive order is one we do not support," became the language almost universally adopted by C.E.O.s.

Of course, the business community, up until this past weekend, has largely cheered many of Mr. Trump's plans to lower taxes, remove regulations and invest in infrastructure.

Several dozen chief executives have found their ways onto a variety of councils to meet with Mr. Trump and advise him on business issues, making it even thornier to criticize him in public.

Take Elon Musk, for example. The mogul and man behind Tesla and SpaceX now has a seat at the table in the White House to help advise the president on manufacturing, a role that this column supported.

By all accounts, people close to Mr. Musk say he was upset about Mr. Trump's order, but offered a somewhat tepid rebuke on Twitter: "The blanket entry ban on citizens from certain primarily Muslim countries is not the best way to address the country's challenges."

He quickly found himself as the target of criticism from fans who wanted him to go further. "Expected a much more forceful condemnation from someone like Elon," one Twitter user wrote.

A lot of the discussion among C.E.O.s, which they shared with me anonymously for fear of retribution for even discussing the subject, said that in the Venn diagram they made about how to deal with public issues like this, they came back to the word "trade-off."

What's the best alternative? One executive explained that he could offer a morally righteous argument that would feel good in the moment and probably cause a series of cheering — and booing — from his various constituents, while potentially losing whatever influence he might have on the president to guide him to make sensible policy in other areas. Or he could offer a Milquetoast response that appeased his employees and nodded at the issue without upsetting his relationship with the president.

Mr. Musk used his Twitter account to solicit suggestions to take to Mr. Trump. "Please read immigration order. Lmk specific amendments. Will seek advisory council consensus & present to President."

Given that Mr. Musk has been willing to bring up contentious subjects with Mr. Trump in the past — like introducing a carbon tax — perhaps making the point in person will do more than doing so in an email or on Twitter.

Whatever the case, the first shots between the business world and the White House have been fired. And more are likely to come.

Aaron Levie, chief executive of the electronic storage company Box, was publicly critical of the executive order and wrote on Twitter that maybe there is too much overthinking of what a public company can say.

"There's some strange mythology that when you go public you can't speak up," he wrote, "I've heard from plenty of investors appreciating our stance."