The statements came in first with a bang, then a softening — and finally an implosion. One by one, the nation's corporate titans weighed in on President Trump’s rhetoric following the violent protests in Charlottesville with their own lofty calls to American values and leadership ideals.
Merck CEO Ken Frazier lit the spark, calling for America’s leaders to reject the hateful expressions that “run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal” while Intel CEO Brian Krzanich pleaded for leaders to "set scoring political points aside and focus on what is best for the nation as a whole." JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said “it is a leader’s role, in business or government, to bring people together, not tear them apart" in a note to tell employees the council he served on was disbanding. Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz said in a meeting with employees that “the bigotry and the hatred and the senseless acts of violence against people who are not white cannot stand. Not in this country."
But while many may have been surprised to see America’s captains of industry ultimately distance themselves from a Republican president — especially after many CEOs initially said they would remain on his councils — others saw something else remarkable.
“I don’t know of a historical circumstance in which business leaders more clearly expressed our identity as a nation than an incumbent president,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies presidential rhetoric. “There are CEOs — and other Democratic and Republican leaders — who are sounding more like a traditional U.S. president than the president himself."
In other words, she and others said, Trump wasn't filling the traditional role of the president as calmer-in-chief, and others — leaders from the world of business, the military or elsewhere — stepped up.
“In heated moments and in moments some see as crisis, he’s jumped into the fray as one of the participants,” said Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University. Trump “is not trying to calm people. He’s taking one side or the other.”
Trump’s initial statement on Saturday after the violence, and the statement he made under pressure Monday, did include calls for unity, showing “true affection for each other,” and remarks like this one, which urged people to “remember this truth: No matter our color, creed, religion or political party, we are all Americans first.”
But those comments and others he made — Trump said Monday “all of us are created equal” and “we are equal under our Constitution” — were overshadowed by his initial blaming of “many sides,” as part of a statement that did not come until well after the protests began and did not name the neo-Nazis and other white supremacist groups that led them. Trump’s doubling down in an explosive news conference Tuesday, when he said that blame was shared on “both sides” for the violence, only served to make his broader appeals to American values and reconciling remarks fade further.
“We expect our presidents to speak in a manner that is morally clear and consistent with the values of the country,” Jamieson said. “One characteristic of a rhetoric of morality is that it is clear and it is prompt. On a moral issue, one doesn’t have to spend a lot of time asking if it is a moral issue or not. The first problem is he didn’t do it quickly.”
Moreover, she said, “when he creates a sense of 'on many sides,' he's absolving those who ought to be put in a separate category and condemned," she said. “What a country needs from a leader is moral clarity: 'We stand for this. We fight for this. This is who we are.' "
Barbara Perry, presidential studies director at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, said Trump might have been seen as rising to that occasion of playing the calmer-in-chief role — one she says starts with Abraham Lincoln's speech at Gettysburg — had he left his remarks on Monday afternoon as they were. Instead, she says, “he tried to salve the wound on Monday but then ripped the band-aid off and at the same time poured salt in it" on Tuesday.
Others point out that this is not the first time Trump has added fuel to a crisis rather than trying to extinguish it. As an example, Zelizer pointed to the terrorist attacks in London in June, when Trump tweeted that “we must stop being politically correct" and called out London Mayor Sadiq Khan with criticism that was taken out of context.
On Thursday, after a van struck pedestrians in Barcelona's Las Ramblas district, Trump first sent a tweet condemning the terrorist attack and saying the United States would do “whatever is necessary to help" and urging the city to “be strong & tough, we love you!" It was soon followed by another tweet suggesting people study “what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught," an apparent reference to a tale he has shared in the past that the fact-checking site Politifact has rated as dubious.
“He generally doesn’t try to contain himself," Zelizer said of Trump. “It’s just the opposite. He’s fanned the flames rather than leading the nation to a better place."