Merck & Co.’s CEO quit President Donald Trump’s council of manufacturing executives Monday, saying “America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values” by rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy.
He was almost immediately attacked by Trump on Twitter.
Following a weekend of violence in Virginia involving white-supremacist groups that Trump has been criticized for not explicitly condemning, Merck CEO Ken Frazier said “as a matter of personal conscience, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.”
Less than an hour later, Trump tweeted in 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!”
The council has included top executives from Boeing Co., Dow Chemical Co. and Johnson & Johnson. The move by Frazier—the latest CEO to quit the groups—comes after a weekend of violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in one death.
Trump, over the weekend, said “many sides” bore blame for the violence, though has so far not directly criticized the supremacist groups that were protesting the removal of a statue of the confederate war general Robert E. Lee. On Saturday, a man drove a Dodge Challenger into a group of counter-demonstrators, killing a woman.
"We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides," Trump said in his statement Saturday. "It's been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time. It has no place in America. What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives."
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said there is “no bigger case right now that we are working on” and said the attack with the car met the definition of domestic terrorism.
Frazier is a black CEO—a rarity in large American corporations—and Merck has in the past taken stands on social issues. In 2012, the Kenilworth, New Jersey-based company’s foundation ended funding for the Boy Scouts of America over the group’s exclusion of gays from its leadership ranks. Frazier is a registered Democrat, according to Pennsylvania voter records.
Trump created two CEO advisory groups early in his presidency. Blackstone Group CEO Steve Schwarzman leads one described as a strategy and policy forum, and Dow Chemical Co.’s Andrew Liveris organized a manufacturing initiative. After an initial burst of activity and press attention, the councils have fizzled with neither meeting since April.
Other chief executives have also stepped down from the various business-advisory groups. Earlier this year, Elon Musk of Tesla Inc. and Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger quit the strategy and policy panel after Trump withdrew from the Paris climate pact. Former Uber Technologies Inc. CEO Travis Kalanick quit in February after Trump’s executive order on immigration.
Trump made U.S. drug prices an issue during the presidential campaign and after—at one point accusing drug companies of “getting away with murder.” While his rhetoric on the subject has cooled, the Food and Drug Administration has taken steps to try and bring more competition to the market for some drugs, and speed more generic drugs to the market.
Frazier, in December, said his company has a “ restrained” approach to price increases, calling aggressive price increases a foolhardy move by the industry. In a company report published this year, Merck said it has a “long history of making our medicines and vaccines accessible and affordable through responsible pricing practices.”
For 2016, the list price on its drugs rose by 9.6 percent on average while the net price, which more closely reflects what is paid by consumers, rose 5.5 percent, according to the report.
Merck shares were up 0.8 percent to $62.88 each, Monday morning.
Toby Cosgrove, the CEO of the Cleveland Clinic, plans to remain on strategy and policy group, said Eileen Sheil, a spokeswoman for the health system. She said the group hasn’t met since April, and there are no meetings scheduled.
Goldman Sachs Group Inc. CEO Lloyd Blankfein also took to Twitter Monday in response to the violence, citing former president Abraham Lincoln.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” wrote Blankfein, whose inaugural tweet in June expressed disapproval over Trump’s decision to ditch the Paris climate accord.
The White House defended Trump's initial comments on Sunday, saying "the President said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry and hatred and of course that includes white Supremacists, KKK, neo-nazi and all extremist groups. He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together."