This post has been updated.
The chief executive of Merck said Monday in a tweet that he was resigning from President Trump's manufacturing council, saying he was doing so “as CEO of Merck and as a matter of personal conscience” and that “America's leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal.”
In the statement, Kenneth C. Frazier, one of the few African American CEOs in the Fortune 500, said, “I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism” and touted the power of diversity. “Our country's strength stems from its diversity and the contributions made by men and women of different faiths, races, sexual orientations and political beliefs.”
Within an hour after the statement was first issued, Trump tweeted his initial response. “Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President's Manufacturing Council, he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!”
Then on Monday evening, Trump tweeted about Frazier's company a second time, again referencing drug prices. "@Merck Pharma is a leader in higher & higher drug prices while at the same time taking jobs out of the U.S.," he wrote. "Bring jobs back & LOWER PRICES!"
Frazier's resignation followed an outcry by critics about how President Trump had responded to protests over the weekend in Charlottesville that were led by white supremacist groups and turned violent. Many questioned why Trump had not explicitly named neo-Nazi, Ku Klux Klan or white nationalist groups when he said “we condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” repeating “on many sides” for emphasis.
By midday Monday, after a weekend of mounting criticism, Trump made a statement in which he denounced the groups. In brief remarks to reporters in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, he said that "racism is evil and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans” and "we are equal under the law and we are equal under our Constitution." He said that "anyone who acted criminally in this weekend's racist violence, you will be held fully accountable."
A spokesman for Merck said the company had no further comment about Frazier's decision, his tweet or the president's response. The White House press office did not immediately respond earlier Monday to a request for comment.
On Saturday afternoon, following the eruption of violence in Charlottesville that morning, Trump first made a general statement about the violence, tweeting: “We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!” Later Saturday, he read a statement that included his condemnation of “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” Critics, including Republicans in his own party, said he should directly condemn the groups by name.
Trump's swift response — and his willingness to go after an American CEO but not initially name white supremacists in Charlottesville — was noted by a number of observers Monday on social media.
Frazier is not the first corporate chieftain to resign in protest from one of the president's advisory councils. In June, following the president's announcement that he planned to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, both Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Disney CEO Robert Iger resigned from White House advisory councils.
Lowering drug prices was a major campaign promise for Trump, and throughout the early part of the year, the president made threatening and vague statements about the prices of drugs being too high. In the midst of one of the drug industry’s biggest conferences in January, Trump accused the pharmaceutical industry of “getting away with murder,” fueling speculation that he might take action on drug prices that the industry has long fought — such as allowing the government to bid on drugs in the Medicare program.
But in the intervening months, industry leaders have grown increasingly confident that any governmental actions won’t harm their business models. Pharmaceutical chief executives, including Frazier, met with Trump in January and came away from the meeting with the impression that they would not face a serious effort from the White House to lower drug prices through government negotiation on Medicare drug prices.
Key leaders from across government have been meeting to discuss the issue of pricing, but based on leaked documents that have been circulating, including a potential draft executive order on drug pricing, Wall Street analysts have noted that some of the actions being proposed could actually help the pharmaceutical industry.
Carolyn Johnson contributed to this report.