Just a month ago, President Trump invited Merck chief executive Kenneth C. Frazier to the White House, calling him one of the “great, great leaders of business in this country.” On Monday morning, Trump singled out Frazier again, this time to express his displeasure over the pharmaceutical executive’s abrupt decision to resign from the president’s American Manufacturing Council.
Frazier, citing a “matter of personal conscience,” said he felt “a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism” in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville and Trump’s failure to quickly and explicitly condemn the white supremacists who organized the rally.
It took Trump just 54 minutes to respond, calling out Frazier among the legions of activists, celebrities and politicians from both parties expressing similar sentiments.
“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 tweeted.
Frazier, one of a handful of African American chief executives of Fortune 500 companies, is just the latest corporate executive to break with the administration. Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Disney chief Robert Iger stepped down from their roles on White House advisory councils following Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. Former Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick, too, said he would no longer participate in a White House economic council, following an uproar in February over Trump’s travel ban.
Late Monday, Kevin Plank, CEO of Under Armour, said on Twitter that he, too, was stepping down from the manufacturing council. “I love our country and our company and will continue to focus my efforts on inspiring every person that they can do anything through the power of sport which promotes unity, diversity and inclusion,” Plank wrote in a statement.
Hours later, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich also announced in a blog post that he was resigning from the council “to call attention to the serious harm our divided political climate is causing to critical issues.”
Ever since Trump assumed office, executives have struggled to balance their desire to engage the White House on policy with the growing expectations by some that they exercise a voice on social issues — all at the risk of alienating shareholders and customers on one side or another.
Executives at giants like General Electric, Dell and Dow tried to walk that fine line Monday, saying they would continue to work with the administration, in hopes of representing their companies’ interests, even as they decried hate, bigotry and violent extremism.
But Frazier, without criticizing Trump by name, was the first to choose to part ways Monday. “America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy,” Frazier said in a statement tweeted by Merck.
Some rallied to support Frazier.
“I’m thankful we have business leaders such as Ken to remind America of its better angels,” tweeted Meg Whitman, chief executive of technology services giant Hewlett Packard Enterprise, a Trump critic in the past.
Others criticized Frazier for undermining the president, who ultimately denounced white supremacists and neo-Nazis in remarks Monday afternoon, two days after the Charlottesville unrest.
Frazier, chief executive of Merck since 2011, has not been shy about wading into sensitive issues. As a corporate lawyer, he took on a death-row appeal that led him to write about the injustices within the system for capital punishment. (James Willie “Bo” Cochran’s conviction was ultimately overturned). While acting as CEO of Merck, he led a committee investigating child abuse by former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky. Under his leadership, Merck announced that its charitable foundation would suspend donations to the Boy Scouts of America over its anti-gay stance at the time. The Scouts have since changed their policy.
“Ken Frazier has been speaking truth to power since well before he crossed over to the ranks of the powerful,” said Seamus Duffy, a partner at the law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath, who called Frazier a role model for him and a generation of lawyers. “He’s a man of principle, and I think he just couldn’t let himself or his company be associated with an administration that would hesitate to condemn racism.”
Frazier found support among current and past Merck leaders.
“I have known Ken for 25 years, since I first recruited him to Merck. He is always smart, always ethical and repeatedly makes the right decisions. I applaud his decision to step down from the Council,” Roy Vagelos, former chairman and chief executive of Merck said in a statement. “Ken is driven by a strong sense of morality in everything he does and he continues to make me proud.”
Thomas H. Glocer, former chief executive of Thomson Reuters and a Merck board member, encouraged other CEOs to do the same.
“Ken has stood up for true American values,” he wrote in a tweet. “I call on all other members of Trump’s image-burnishing committees to do the same.”
Frazier rose to prominence at Merck when, as general counsel, he was the architect of the company’s legal strategy to aggressively defend itself against lawsuits from people who suffered heart attacks and strokes while taking its Vioxx painkiller. The company eventually settled thousands of cases for $4.85 billion, a fraction of what analysts estimated the company might face if it stuck to its plan to fight every lawsuit.
A Merck spokeswoman said the company had nothing to add beyond Frazier’s statement and declined a request to interview him.
Trump has courted the business community assiduously in his presidency, filling his Cabinet with business leaders and inviting CEOs from various industries to Trump Tower and the White House to advise on an agenda he promised would cut taxes, eliminate regulations and boost jobs.
“We’ll have these meetings every — whenever you need them, actually — but I would say every quarter, perhaps,” Trump said at one gathering.
At an early meeting with pharmaceutical companies, Frazier sat at Trump’s side. Just last month, Frazier was at the White House again, standing beside Trump, with other chief executives, as the president championed an initiative to manufacture better glass packing for drugs.
It is unclear whether Trump’s tweet could portend negative repercussions for Merck or the pharmaceutical industry generally. Trump has repeatedly promised to bring down drug prices and has used harsh language to describe the industry, but has not taken any strong actions.
The president, though, continued to press his cause Monday night, tweeting: “@Merck Pharma is a leader in higher & higher drug prices while at the same time taking jobs out of the U.S. Bring jobs back & LOWER PRICES!”
Ultimately, those who know Frazier said he acted as he did because of his deep convictions, which have guided him throughout his career.
“This is one of the finest men I’ve ever met,” said Jim Sweet, former chairman of Drinker Biddle & Reath, who has known Frazier for four decades — since Frazier was a summer intern at the law firm. “If he knew that [Trump’s tweet] was coming and that was the response, he would have done it anyway. That wouldn’t have inhibited him.”
Sintia Radu contributed to this report.