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CEOs face a 'false choice' on whether or not to stick with Trump, says Southern Company CEO

  • Leaders in corporate America can disagree with President Trump and remain engaged in crafting economic policies, Tom Fanning says.
  • The notion that CEOs can't do both is "a little bit of a false choice," the Southern Company chief argues.

Corporate leaders can disagree with President Donald Trump's comments regarding Saturday's deadly white nationalist rally and can remain engaged in crafting policies to help businesses, Southern Company chief Tom Fanning told CNBC.

The notion that CEOs can't do both is "a little bit of a false choice," the energy company chairman and CEO said Wednesday on "Squawk Box" amid the uproar from the president's reaction to the weekend clashes between white supremacists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia. A 32-year-old woman was killed Saturday when a car driven by a suspected white supremacist plowed into a group of counterprotesters, authorities said.

On Tuesday, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, union colleague Thea Lee, and the president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, Scott Paul, resigned from Trump's manufacturing council. A day earlier, Merck CEO Ken Frazier, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich and Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank announced their departures.

"You can certainly look at the events in Charlottesville and say, 'That was awful. That's not good for America in any circumstance," Fanning said. "And at the same time, they can remain engaged in the big issues of the day and make sure business plays an appropriate role — action not rhetoric — to make America better, to drive the economy forward."

At a chaotic news conference Tuesday, the president angrily doubled down on his original comments about the Charlottesville mayhem, blaming both sides. On Monday, a measured Trump had walked back his weekend "two sides" remark, which sparked national outrage, and blamed the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups.

Fanning declined to say what he thinks personally about Trump's comments. "I don't think that's productive ... me commenting on his comments. What's productive for me is to keep my eye on the ball. And that is energy policy and national security ... and things related the economy."

"I don't engage on the big, broad meetings" with the White House, Fanning said. "I engage in a smaller scale, private setting" on the issues important to the power and energy giant Southern Company, which has a market value of $48.9 billion.

"I'm not interested in punks, thugs, and criminals," said Fanning. "I know what we stand for. I know what America stands for. We get that. Now let's get back to business."

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