Jamie Dimon steps in it.

Life Just Got Really Awkward for CEOs Who Have Sucked Up to Donald Trump

Life Just Got Really Awkward for CEOs Who Have Sucked Up to Donald Trump

Moneybox
Commentary about business and finance.
May 17 2017 4:53 PM

Jamie Dimon Steps in It

The JPMorgan CEO defended advising Trump—just hours before the administration hit its lowest point yet.

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon
JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon attends a policy forum with President Trump in the State Dining Room at the White House on Feb. 3.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Jamie Dimon picked one hell of a week to lean in to Donald Trump.

On Tuesday, the day after the Washington Post revealed the president had shared highly classified information with Russian diplomats and a week after he fired James Comey, the veteran CEO of JPMorgan Chase told investors at the bank’s annual shareholder meeting that he wouldn’t step down from his perch on Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum, an advisory council of powerful American executives. “He is the president of the United States. I believe he is the pilot flying our airplane,” Dimon said. “I would try to help any president of the United States, because I’m a patriot.” Dimon surely wishes he’d said something different. Only hours later came the news that according to a memo by Comey, Trump had asked the FBI director to end his agency’s inquiry into former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn—a revelation that has brought Trump’s presidency to its lowest, most tumultuous point yet.

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One odd and compelling consequence of the Trump era has been the way it has affected, flummoxed, and exposed America’s corporate titans. A class of people who are accustomed to deference and are possessed of extraordinary self-confidence and agency hasn’t quite known how to react to the new regime.

Ordinarily, CEOs can support GOP standard-bearers who promise to cut taxes and slash regulations without anyone blinking. But a polarizing, willfully un–PC politician like Trump poses a challenge for many modern CEOs. He’s a walking violation of a host of human-resources policies and stands in stark opposition to the corporate-style progressivism that permeates so many consumer-facing companies today. As a group, Fortune 500 companies today are socially liberal, especially on areas surrounding diversity, gay rights, and immigration; they are unabashedly in favor of free trade and globalization, express concern about climate change, and embrace renewable energy. Trump is none of these things.

And so we’ve seen a range of reactions. There’s a group of CEO types, mostly crusty older guys like Carl Icahn and T. Boone Pickens, who are unapologetic Trump fans—and in some instances his pals. Since they founded their companies and are far beyond caring what other people think, getting in bed with Trump politically isn’t an issue.

But many others have had to walk a tightrope. Immediately after the election, many CEOs felt compelled to reaffirm their own—and their companies’—values in the face of Trumpism. As Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi noted, “My employees were all crying. The question that they are asking, especially those who are not white—‘Are we safe?’ Women are asking, ‘Are we safe?’ LGBT people are asking, ‘Are we safe?’—I never thought I would have to answer those questions.” She continued: “So, I think that the first thing that we have to do is to assure everyone living in the United States will be safe.” And Pepsi, however clumsily, has attempted to capitalize on the progressive pushback against Trump’s policies—even as Nooyi serves on Trump’s Strategic and Advisory Council.

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As people in public life, CEOs often feel compelled to offer anodyne support for the new CEO of the country. And that’s typically not a big deal. But some CEOs have found that doing so can get them into hot water with their customers, key employees, and endorsers. In February, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank commented that “to have such a pro-business president is something that is a real asset to this country.” To which NBA star Steph Curry, one of the company’s most important celebrity endorsers, responded, “I agree with that description [of Trump], if you remove the et” [from asset]. Under Armour’s stock fell.

Then there is the class of CEOs whose business relies on the government for contracts, or who stand to be impacted by significant regulatory changes. These titans have had to swallow their pride and their personal political preferences for the sake of their businesses. They show up to meetings, but try not to say too much and give away their real feelings via body language. Who can forget the pained expressions on the faces of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Google’s Larry Page, Apple’s Tim Cook, and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg when they were summoned to Trump Tower in the wake of the election?* For Uber’s Travis Kalanick, who bowed to consumer pressure and quit Trump’s advisory council in February, walking a tightrope was impossible.

Another group of CEOs—the big shots who run large manufacturers and defense contractors—have assumed a posture that is simultaneously defensive and uncharacteristically unctuous. Weary of being on the wrong end of a Trump tweetstorm about shipping jobs overseas or fearful of losing a potentially lucrative contract, they have made nice to Trump through gestures and words. See Lockheed Martin CEO Marilyn Hewson’s pledge to reduce costs on the F-35 or Ford CEO Mark Fields touting a previously planned factory investment in Michigan as a “vote of confidence” in Trump.

But most of these moves came immediately after the election or the inauguration—when Trump was still (relatively) popular and before he had truly begun to wreak havoc on the nation’s governing norms. In the past several weeks, as Trump’s popularity has plummeted and the presidency has lurched from self-imposed crisis to self-imposed crisis, savvy CEOs have been keeping their distance.

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So it’s surprising that at the very moment Republican elected officials were beginning to inch away from Trump, Dimon voluntarily stepped his foot in the mess. After all, Dimon is a savvy banker with excellent self-preservation instincts—Duff McDonald’s biography of Dimon is justly titled Last Man Standing. Dimon managed to steer JPMorgan through the financial crisis and has held on to his post despite the fact that, under his reign, JPMorgan Chase has racked up tens of billions of dollars in fines and settlements.  

What’s behind this? Dimon isn’t a secret Trumpkin. While he was relatively close to people in Obama’s orbit—Dimon ran Chicago-based Bank One and got to know key Obama lieutenants like Rahm Emanuel and Bill Daley —Dimon has generally been a nonpartisan figure. And he’s not angling for an appointment, although the prospect of him replacing Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen when her tenure expires in 2018 isn’t the craziest idea. To be sure, JPMorgan Chase, like all the other major banks, does have a significant regulatory agenda. And it would benefit from a less aggressive Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and a revamping of the Dodd-Frank law, which penalizes the larger banks. But Trump and his crowd would be pushing this agenda regardless of whether Dimon was providing cover.

The simplest explanation may be that the people who run giant global businesses tend not to spend much time on Twitter or reading Politico or watching MSNBC. They’re not political junkies. They don’t follow the daily ins and outs of Beltway doings unless it directly impacts their business. It’s quite possible that Dimon—along with many other CEOs—hasn’t grasped how the zeitgeist has turned against Trump and wasn’t following the unfolding details surrounding the Comey firing and the latest Russia intrigue. And if you’re only dipping into the stream occasionally, instead of being immersed in it, you might not grasp that an anodyne talking point that would have gone over quite easily in December, or January, or February would land like a ton of bricks in May.

*Correction, May 22, 2017: This article originally misidentified Google co-founder Sergey Brin as an attendee of a meeting at Trump Tower after the 2016 election. Google-parent Alphabet CEO Larry Page attended, but Brin did not. (Return.)

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