President Trump campaigned as the real estate executive who was going to bring a businessman's sensibilities to Washington. During the transition, he rolled out the welcome mat at Trump Tower, inviting a parade of CEOs from every industry imaginable. He stocked his Cabinet with business leaders, suggested to Silicon Valley chieftains there was an open line to his office -- "You'll call my people, you call me. It doesn't make any difference" -- and spent his first full weekday in the White House hosting a who's-who of American industry, promising to meet often about what could help their industries. "We'll have these meetings every -- whenever you need them, actually -- but I would say every quarter, perhaps," he said during that early meeting.
But when business leaders spoke up en masse in recent months about one issue they said was critical to them, Trump didn't take their advice, choosing to exit the Paris climate agreement despite appeals from some of the highest levels of Corporate America to remain.
"It's totally contradictory," said David Crane, the former CEO of energy firm NRG and now a senior operating executive at the private-equity firm Pegasus focused on sustainability investments. The Paris accord, Crane said, was the "first thing that's become actionable, where we spoke up in one voice, and he's gone in the opposite direction."
A climate expert and two former CEOs alike said the amount of unity chief executives showed on the Paris pact -- and vocally so -- was unusual, if not unprecedented. "This is as close as America ever gets to a unified business position on any issue," said Ted Halstead, a founder of the think tank New America and the Climate Leadership Council, a research and advocacy organization launched in February. "There are no parties that are better situated to speak with authority on what's good for the economy, what's good for jobs, and what's good for innovation and competitiveness" than the CEOs of America's largest companies, he said, calling Trump's move a "profound contradiction."
When it came to making his decision on the Paris accord, Trump "ignored many voices. But the most surprising is that he ignored the business voices."
Even if Trump may have listened, he appeared to set the CEOs' arguments aside. For months, American business leaders came together to write letters, make personal appeals and run full-page ads imploring Trump to stay in the climate pact. Personal calls or letters came from CEOs ranging from Apple's Tim Cook to ExxonMobil's Darren Woods. Thirty corporate titans wrote a letter laying out the business case for staying in; it and others ran as full-page advertisements in national newspapers. "The whole thing was for an audience of one," said Crane, who made calls to a major CEO who was on a trans-Atlantic flight to urge him to sign the letter.
The CEOs made a business case rather than simply an environmental or moral one, going beyond calls for American leadership or sustainability and laying out how exiting the accord would hurt their companies' competitiveness on the global stage and cost American jobs. But in the end, even they didn't have enough sway. As adviser Kellyanne Conway explained it in a story in The Post, "he started with a conclusion, and the evidence brought him to the same conclusion."
At least one CEO who tweeted he was "deeply disappointed" with Trump’s decision acknowledged he had the right to make up his own mind. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, who wrote Thursday that he would double his company's efforts to fight climate change -- even retweeting retorts from California governor Jerry Brown and French President Emmanuel Macron -- said of Trump in an interview Thursday before the announcement that “he’s his own man," saying that's a "marquee part of any presidency. You take input. You make your own mind up."
Trump's rejection of many CEOs' advice on the Paris issue could affect his clout among them, said Bill George, the former CEO of Medtronic who is now a professor at Harvard Business School. "It reduces his power to lead among the business community, and clearly, globally," he said. The decision could carry over into his persuasiveness on other priorities, too, George said. "It's going to hurt his ability, in my opinion, to influence CEOs to produce more in the U.S. They're going to say 'we're going to have to do what we're going to do.' "
Crane, speaking before the announcement was made, thought the decision could also prompt some CEOs to consider leaving Trump's business advisory council. "Some people could leave as a matter of principle, other people may say it's not worth my time," he said. CEOs say "I've got a big business to run. I'm down here spending my time on it as long as Congress might do something."
Indeed, two CEOs did choose to leave Trump's advisory council on Thursday, and one of them, Disney CEO Robert Iger, in fact said he was doing so "as a matter of principle." Elon Musk also followed through on a threat he'd made Wednesday to leave if Trump withdrew from the accord. "Am departing presidential councils," the Tesla and SpaceX CEO tweeted. "Climate change is real. Leaving Paris is not good for America or the world."
Scores of others issued statements of disappointment or tweeted their commitment to climate change following the president's decision. In a letter obtained by The Washington Post, Apple CEO Tim Cook told employees "we will never waver, because we know that future generations depend on us." General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt wrote in a tweet that "industry must now lead and not depend on government."
Some believe that's exactly what will happen, as the center of gravity on climate change shifts away from the White House. An unnamed group that includes 100 businesses, as well as 30 mayors, three governors and more than 80 university presidents, is negotiating with the U.N. to submit a plan that would sit alongside those from other nations, reported the New York Times. And Halstead said in about three weeks, he will announce 12 to 15 Fortune 100 companies as founding members of his group, which already has the backing of conservative elder statesmen like George Shultz and James A. Baker III and is aimed at what he calls a "concrete, market-based climate solution." Business leaders, he said, "are not about to give up. They're going to lead and policy will follow."