An exodus of executives from President Trump's manufacturing council this week has amplified the backlash over his sluggish response to the recent violence in Charlottesville and raised questions about whether major corporations will continue to work with a White House marred by racial controversy.
Although Trump attempted on Monday and again on Tuesday to clean up the mess his initial equivocation had caused, his condemnation of the alt-right groups involved in the weekend's riots came too late to prevent six business leaders from withdrawing from the presidential manufacturing council by Tuesday evening.
Kenneth Frazier, CEO of Merck, Kevin Plank, CEO of Under Armour, Brian Krzanich, CEO of Intel, and Scott Paul, president of Alliance for American Manufacturing, each announced their resignations from the council after Trump responded to the death of an anti-racist protester in Charlottesville on Saturday by blaming "many sides" for the clash that broke out at a white supremacist rally. Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, and Thea Lee, an economist working with the labor federation, stepped down from the panel Tuesday evening after Trump waffled anew on who bore responsibility for the riots during a press conference earlier in the day.
The labor leaders were already out of step with the rest of the Democratic coalition for participating in an advisory panel aligned with Trump. The backlash over the president's Charlottesville remarks made their continued presence untenable.
John Feehery, a GOP strategist and former Republican congressional aide, said the firestorm over Trump's initially weak response to the racist groups involved in the violence has created a "teachable moment" for the White House.
"Big business is not with Trump on the nationalism stuff, but they are with him on his pro-business agenda. So that puts both the president and the business sector in an awkward position," Feehery said. "They need each other, but there also an element of common antipathy. We will see if they can find a way to work together or if this becomes a bigger rupture. It's unclear at this point."
Trump chafed at the departures from his manufacturing panel and vowed Tuesday that he would replace the "grandstanders" with other executives.
For every CEO that drops out of the Manufacturing Council, I have many to take their place. Grandstanders should not have gone on. JOBS!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 15, 2017
A White House official did not respond to a request for comment on any plans to name new business leaders to the council.
Trump suggested some of the executives who fled his council did so due the attention he has drawn to their overseas manufacturing operations.
"They're not taking their job seriously as it pertains to this country," Trump said of the fleeing council members during his impromptu press conference on Tuesday. "I have to tell you, some of the folks that will leave, they're leaving out of embarrassment because they make their products outside. And I've been lecturing them, including the gentleman that you're referring to, about, you have to bring it back to this country."
The scrutiny of Trump's manufacturing council and the pressure on its members to resign comes as his administration prepares to begin renegotiating the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, which Trump has long touted as a major factor in the decline of domestic manufacturing. The White House originally convened the panel of 28 business leaders to inform its discussions on trade and economic policy.
Scott Jennings, a former George W. Bush aide, said the vacancies on Trump's manufacturing panel likely create more of an optics problem than a logistical problem for the White House.
"I don't think this council had any real power; it is advisory, and the president can get any CEO he wants on the phone to discuss policy. So it's a PR problem, but I doubt the resignations will have any impact on policy making," Jennings said.
"Certainly, it's a media headache for the White House and extends the political consequences of mishandling Saturday," he added. "But I seriously doubt it will derail the president's economic agenda."
Trump's unwieldy press conference on Tuesday could extend the life of the controversy surrounding his Charlottesville comments. While his speech from the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on Monday received praise for its toughness -- although took heat for its lateness -- his comments just a day later in the lobby of Trump Tower revived accusations of moral equivalency from the president.
"You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I'll say it right now," Trump told a group of reporters traveling with him in New York. "You had a group -- you had a group on the other side that came charging in, without a permit, and they were very, very violent."
Republicans rushed to distance themselves from Trump's remarks on Tuesday.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said the white supremacist groups involved in Saturday's violence are "repulsive."
"This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for," Ryan said. "There can be no moral ambiguity."
Rep. Steve Stivers, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, slammed the neo-Nazis who marched over the weekend as "evil."
"I don't understand what's so hard about this," Stivers said of condemning such groups.