Things have looked grim for Donald Trump’s future more than once in his relatively brief career as a politician. But on Wednesday, the cracks in the edifice of his public standing were really beginning to show as supporters and enablers from both the public and private sectors began abandoning him in droves over his response to a violent rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend, which left three people dead.
The event was organized by white nationalists and attended by multiple racist organizations, including the Ku Klux Klan and several neo-Nazi organizations. They were met by angry counter-protesters, some of whom were affiliated with an anti-fascist movement, known as ANTIFA, which is known for violent resistance to Nazi groups.
Both groups were responsible for attacks during a march on Saturday, the most egregious of which was when a member of a neo-Nazi group drove a car into a group of protesters, killing one woman and injuring about 20 others. A key difference, however, is that one group was there to promote a hateful ideology that explicitly dehumanizes large segments of the population, and which has been responsible for millions of deaths over the past century.
When he addressed the event in a press conference on Monday, Trump repeatedly failed to make any distinction between Nazi demonstrators and anti-Nazi protesters, instead suggesting a moral equivalence between the two that appears to have been a bridge too far for many of his supporters.
Ken Frazier, CEO of pharmaceuticals giant Merck announced on Monday that he was resigning from the president’s Manufacturing Forum. As other top business leaders began to follow suit, the president attacked Frazier on Twitter and tweeted out a boastful claim that “For every CEO that drops out of the Manufacturing Council, I have many to take their place. Grandstanders should not have gone on. JOBS!”
By Wednesday, he had changed his tune dramatically. By early afternoon, more than half a dozen high profile CEOs announced that they would resign from either the Manufacturing Council, of the president’s Strategy and Policy Forum. Instead of filling the slots with the eager executives whom he claimed were waiting in the wings, the president said he would disband the councils entirely.
Given the attrition over the preceding 24 hours, the move had the feel of Trump shouting, “You can’t quit! You’re fired!”
CEO after CEO had been making announcements distancing themselves from the president, if not departing his advisory councils altogether.
“Racism and murder are unequivocally reprehensible and are not morally equivalent to anything else that happened in Charlottesville,” Campbell Soup CEO Denise Morrison. “I believe the president should have been — and still needs to be — unambiguous on that point.”
In fact, on Wednesday, JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon suggested in a note to his employees that the Strategy and Policy Group he served on had jointly decided to disband, independently of Trump.
“Constructive economic and regulatory policies are not enough and will not matter if we do not address the divisions in our country,” Dimon’s note read. ”It is a leader’s role, in business or government, to bring people together, not tear them apart.”
Trump’s announcement about his advisory councils came amid a blizzard of denunciations of his behavior by members of Congress from his own party. While some, like House Speaker Paul Ryan, issued statements denouncing Nazis, white supremacists and racism in general, others took direct aim at the president.
“Mr. President, you can't allow White Supremacists to share only part of blame,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted on Tuesday. “They support ideas which cost nation & world so much pain. The White Supremacy groups will see being assigned only 50% of blame as a win. We can not allow this old evil to be resurrected”
Rep. Dave Trott, of Michigan, tried humor. “I think America needs more unity and less divisiveness...meaning @realDonaldTrump should focus more on golf & have less press conferences.
By Wednesday afternoon, the list of Republicans adding their names to those appalled by the President's reaction to Charlottesville was lengthening. Then came perhaps the most surprising news: Vice President Mike Pence, who has been traveling in South America, announced that he was cutting his trip short to return to the US for meetings with the president at Camp David.
What that means is unclear -- in a statement, Pence has said that he “stands” with the president -- but at a minimum, it appears to be unprecedented recognition from a senior administration official that this is a crisis beyond any which the Trump presidency has faced.