You might think CEOs in America lean toward cutting some slack for President Donald Trump when it comes to supporting impeachment, grading the commander-in-chief and assessing the economy.
This, after all, is a group benefiting mightily these days. A large percentage of Trump’s tax cut, enacted two years ago this week, goes to the top 1 percent and the very richest Americans can expect all of the gains by 2027. Stock prices are at record highs. Trump is ignoring or rolling back federal regulations and allowing companies to bring back foreign-earned profits more freely.
Moreover, this president presents himself, rightly or wrongly, as a fellow CEO from the same cloth as the people who run large organizations.
Well, they don’t give him any slack, for one perfectly logical reason: Trump’s leadership.
A survey of 78 CEOs and other influential leaders in New York for the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute’s CEO summit last week showed 56 percent of those who answered saying they want Trump not just impeached, but removed from office. That left 44 percent saying he should remain in the White House, and we can assume some of them did support the impeachment in the U.S. House if not conviction in the Senate.
That’s a surprising if not stunning result on its face, significantly higher than the 46 percent of Americans who supported Trump’s ouster just before last Wednesday’s vote in the House, a Gallup poll showed. Trump’s approval rating nudged up a couple of points in that poll, released on the day of the vote.
The survey at Yale CEO summit, as it’s known, is not scientific; it’s basically a straw poll. But it’s hardly a fluke.
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean of the Yale School of Management and the nation’s leading authority on corporate leadership, has run exactly 100 of the summits in three decades — a nice milestone — and has asked questions about Trump since the 2016 election.
Every quarter brings a different group of 50 to 125 or so CEOs. As I look through the releases and articles about Sonnendfeld’s surveys, it’s clear Trump has slipped from bad to worse in the eyes of these corporate leaders.
In June, 2017, five months after Trump’s inauguration, fully 50 percent of 125 leaders in Sonnenfeld’s program gave the president a duck egg — F — and another 21 percent marked down a D for his performance.
And that was before August 2017, when Trump’s vaunted “manufacturing council” blew up in his face over his remarks honoring the white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va.
In December, 2017, CEOs gave mixed responses to the tax overhaul that helped them personally, and 72 percent said it was “wrong” for Trump to allow the plan to increase the national debt — which it certainly did.
By December 2018, an astounding 88 percent in that pre-holiday CEO summit said “Trump’s negotiation style has cost the nation the trust of its allies,” according to a release from the Chief Executive Leadership Institute. And 75 percent said they “often find themselves apologizing to international business partners regarding the president’s diplomatic messages.”
I can only imagine the other 25 percent don’t have any international business partners.
One year ago, Sonnenfeld told Chief Executive magazine (based in Stamford), the hundreds of CEOs he surveyed and met with intensely has evolved from skeptical of Trump to enthusiastic to hopeful in the early years.
“Then we got widespread dismay with his divisiveness,” Sonnenfeld said to Chief Executive. “The contentiousness he was creating in the U.S. business community was remarkable.”
What’s happening here? Sonnenfeld’s CEO summits — almost always closed to the media with occasional events open to a few selected reporters but even then, off the record — bring together men and women at the apex of their professions eager to improve further.
That means they’re more keen on leadership than politics, ideology and even policy. And while Trump’s bluster and lies fool some of the people some of the time, Sonnenfeld’s participants are less bowled over by name-calling and twisting facts such as Trump’s characterization of the Mueller report and the FBI inspector general’s report as “complete exoneration.”
We’re not talking about Hollywood studio bosses and 29-year-old tech CEOs in black T-shirts here. The group that met last week in New York was set to include Lloyd C. Blankfein, senior chairman at Goldman Sachs; Jeffrey L. Bewkes, former chairman and CEO, Time Warner Inc.; Mike Ullman, chairman of Starbucks, formerly head of J.C. Penney; Matthew S. Levatich of Harley-Davidson; Stephen A. Schwarzman of Blackstone; Randall L. Stephenson of AT&T; and Vicki A. Hollub of Occidental Petroleum; and Maggie Wilderotter of Grand Reserve Inn, the former CEO at Frontier Communications, based in Norwalk.
OK, the group also included two journalists from CNN and the New York Times; a nonprofit boss here and there; and several former ranking federal government and military officials, some in Democratic administrations.
CEOs famously refuse to speak bluntly about politics, especially Trump. The Business Roundtable, which represents the management of hundreds of large companies, would not comment Monday when I asked whether the group has surveyed members about Trump. No such survey is available publicly.
The Roundtable does survey its members about the economy and this month’s result shows the seventh straight quarter of declining expectations, which tells us a lot.
Sonnenfeld’s latest group, according to a partial list released by Yale, included Richard V. Spencer, fired as U.S. Navy secretary last month in the flap over a Navy SEAL convicted of posing with the corpse of an Islamic State captive. Spencer lit into Trump in a Washington Post op-ed.
Trump “has very little understanding of what it means to be in the military, to fight ethically or to be governed by a uniform set of rules and practices,” Spencer wrote.
And based on the responses at Sonnenfeld’s CEO summits, Trump is not in the club of business elites, either, at least when it comes to what matters most, leadership — despite his snookering of half of Americans that he’s a successful CEO.