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Even Business Leaders Who Abandoned Trump’s Councils May Not Stray Far

Who's next?

That's the question being not-so-quietly whispered around the business world these days. Will one of the former business leaders in President Trump's inner circle will resign, following the disintegration of the president's various business councils last week. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin? Gary Cohn, the president's chief economic adviser?

The answer is, well, nobody is next, at least not yet.

And despite all the hand-wringing, that may be the right answer.

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Last week's abandonment of President Trump by the leaders of America's largest corporations was a resounding signal to the country and the world that they won't tolerate anyone — even the president — coming to the defense of those who preach indefensible hate.

But it is being misunderstood as the country searches for meaning amid the anguish over the events in Charlottesville, Va., leading to almost existential questions about the role of corporations as a new form of moral authority, filling a vacuum left by our political leaders.

The resignation en masse was symbolic. Importantly symbolic. But nothing more.

Lest anyone believe that the business world has collectively gotten up from the table and washed its hands of Washington and the Trump administration, think again.

Companies will continue to advocate their positions, forcefully, in person and through lobbying groups. The only difference is that they won't be sitting in meetings described as "councils" with cameras and photo opportunities.

The people in Mr. Trump's inner circle have a much harder decision to make.

On one hand, some of them have said they are privately disgusted with the president — not only over how he reacted to Charlottesville, but regarding all manner of items and issues. They could leave in defiance, and some would be applauded for doing so, perhaps even improving their own reputations.

But they would be leaving the president, and the country, in a dire position.

Mr. Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, said as much to his classmates at Yale, who had written him an open letter calling for him to resign.

"I believe that having highly talented men and women in our country surrounding the president in his administration should be reassuring to you and all the American people," he wrote in a response posted on Twitter.

That response may not satisfy everyone. Larry Summers, the former Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton, wrote on Twitter that he could understand that Mr. Mnuchin might make a different decision than he would in deciding to stay on in the administration. But he then took direct aim at Mr. Mnuchin, writing: "@stevenmnuchin1 invests his credibility in defending @realDonaldTrump. Will he have credibility when financial crisis requires it?"

Mr. Summers followed up by adding: "Presidents are poorly served by sycophant advisers who reflexively flatter & defend them. I'm disappointed in @stevenmnuchinstatement."

But here's the practical question: Say what you will about Mr. Mnuchin, but he at least has a legitimate résumé of real experience. Given the chaos and infighting that has plagued this White House, do you think that there is a lengthy list of talented individuals with professional experience lining up for his job?

Unlike the business "councils," the roles in the administration that people like Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Cohn inhabit are more meaningful, even when they are not successful in swaying the president.

In some ways, it was easy for the C.E.O.s to abandon the president — especially given the safety in numbers — because so many of them privately say they felt like props that enabled Mr. Trump to look like a businessman to voters who have no idea he was never one of them. On the flip side, Mr. Trump was a prop in the business leaders' plan to promote changes to regulatory rules and tax laws, and thus make their businesses more profitable.

For all the credit that the C.E.O.s were given for their "courage" in leaving the council, let's be honest: The one who deserves the most credit is Ken Frazier, the chief executive of Merck, who took the lead. The rest were followers. There are two others who haven't gotten a whiff of credit but should: Bob Iger, chief executive of Disney, and Elon Musk of Tesla, who left the councils long ago because they could not abide the president's decision to abandon the Paris climate accord.

Still, while those executives and their peers may not be sitting in the Oval Office anytime soon, they won't be that far away.

Ginni Rometty of IBM said so in her memo to employees: "IBM will continue to work with all parts of the government for policies that support job growth, vocational education and global trade, as well as fair and informed policies on immigration and taxation."

And the real estate mogul and Trump backer Tom Barrack made this case in a statement he made available to the media: "The president of the United States, now more than ever, needs to maintain contact with a qualified and diverse group of official and nonofficial advisers and experts on varied and distinct concepts. Business leaders and C.E.O.'s are an essential silo of that group."

He added: "To abandon the input of constructive opinions from qualified, nonpolitical, individuals who are fortunate to be called upon by the president for advice is counterproductive to an objective of supplying him with a diverse, realistic and at times contrary pool of expert thought and advice."

The same case could be made for the people sitting with Mr. Trump in the White House.

Perhaps the bigger question is whether Mr. Trump will tolerate so many members of his inner circle — including family members like his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner — seemingly portraying their roles as keeping the boss from hurting himself. After all, the president's favorite phrase — which he once tried to trademark — is "You're fired."