Some big American companies dare to push back on Trump

Duke business school dean: Business and political worlds are colliding

When General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt criticized President Donald Trump's climate policy on Wednesday, he made his industrial behemoth the latest American company to push back on the young administration.

In a widely reported note to employees, Immelt said that Trump's executive order to start rolling back Obama-era fossil-fuel regulations "doesn't change what GE believes" — that climate change is real and "should be addressed on a global basis." Companies should "adjust to political volatility" and "have their own 'foreign policy,'" he wrote.

While many American executives hope for a better operating environment during Trump's presidency, largely based on proposed corporate tax cuts or planned regulatory easing, their optimism has not stopped them from pushing back against the White House. Some companies are taking chances to rebut the president, even though the threat of a very public Twitter attack from Trump always looms.

GE's CEO Jeffrey Immelt said the U.S. is diverging from the rest of the world.

"If I'm a long-term investor, and I'm looking at this, company performance is going to dictate the stock price as opposed to the daily tweets of the commander-in-chief," said Michael Cohen, interim director of the political management program at George Washington University.

Some large U.S. companies have criticized those segments of Trump's policies that prompted major public outcry, like climate change or immigration. ExxonMobil this week urged the White House not to abandon the landmark Paris climate accords, a multinational deal from which it is considering withdrawing, according to reports. Key technology companies like Apple, Google-parent Alphabet and Facebook condemned Trump's divisive original executive order restricting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Trump has changed the thought process for businesses because of how much backlash many of his policies have faced, said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. Some executives, including Uber's Travis Kalanick, have faced criticism and resistance from consumers for appearing too close to Trump.

"There have been boycotts or bad publicity for company executives that get too close to Trump. This has led some of them to criticize some of the president's initiatives," West said.

In the most recent example of criticism, Deere CEO Samuel Allen told CNBC on Thursday that "any form of protectionism or nationalism," which Trump has advocated, "is not beneficial for a company like ours."

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Publicly pushing back on a president becomes easier when the commander-in-chief has a poor approval rating or faces public backlash, Cohen and West added. A Gallup reading showed Trump with a 35 percent approval rating Wednesday following Republicans' failed effort to replace the Affordable Care Act.

"With his approval rating, he's not exactly going to scare anybody" in the business community, Cohen said. West added that an unpopular president "does not have the public platform to create trouble for a business leader."

Cohen noted that, so far, a Trump tweet has not proven very damaging to a company's share price. For instance, since the president tweeted at Boeing on Dec. 6 criticizing the price of its Air Force One contract with the government, the defense contractor's shares have climbed about 17 percent.

Still, Boeing made immediate overtures to Trump to explain the Air Force One pricing, and Trump has since boasted about how the price is coming down.

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