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After Merck chief quits, Under Armour CEO steps down from Trump's business council

Bloomberg

Under Armour Inc.’s Kevin Plank became the latest chief executive to quit President Donald Trump’s council of U.S. business leaders, as membership on the panel has become enmeshed in the country’s volatile politics after violent riots in Virginia over the weekend.

The move comes hours after Merck & Co.’s Kenneth Frazier also stepped down from the business council. Plank’s departure is a sharp rebuke to Trump, after the Under Armor executive earlier this year came under fire for commenting that the president was a “real asset” for the country.

“Under Armour engages in innovation and sport, not politics,” Plank said in a tweeted statement that referenced the company’s aim to promote diversity and inclusion. Frazier said he quit “as a matter of personal conscience, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.”

Trump responded to Frazier with a couple jabs, tweeting late Monday that “@Merck Pharma is a leader in higher & higher drug prices while at the same time taking jobs out of the U.S.”

For the moment, other big-name chief executives are sticking with Trump. Over the weekend, one woman was killed and several others were injured after a man in a car rammed a group of counter-demonstrators during a daylong melee in Charlottesville, Virginia. White supremacists and other hate groups had massed in the city to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Trump was widely criticized by U.S. lawmakers and other officials for not denouncing white supremacists in a statement Saturday in which he said “many sides” were at fault for the violence. The president has repeatedly drawn fire for his relations with white nationalist groups and his handling of issues related to minorities.

Speaking from the White House on Monday, Trump denounced white supremacists and declared racism “evil.”

“To anyone who acted criminally in this weekend’s racist violence, you will be held accountable,” Trump said, calling for unity in the wake of the tragedy.

The move by Frazier and Plank shows how corporate leaders are walking a narrow line in working with the Trump administration to help shape policy around taxes, immigration and other issues, while trying not to alienate customers in an increasingly tense political environment.

The council has included top executives from Boeing Co., Dow Chemical Co. and Johnson & Johnson. A handful of CEOs have stepped down from two White House business groups, which have met only sporadically, over political controversies.

The president has not been shy about calling out businesses for perceived missteps. After his 2016 election victory Trump took aim at defense contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp. for what he called the high cost of some aircraft, and muscled United Technologies Corp. unit Carrier into keeping a plant in Indiana after the company said it would be closed and production shifted to Mexico.

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’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.

Earlier this year, Elon Musk of Tesla Inc. and Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger quit the strategy and policy panel after Trump said he would withdraw from the Paris climate pact. Former Uber Technologies Inc. CEO Travis Kalanick quit in February after Trump’s executive order on immigration.

Trump and a range of corporations have previously been at odds on other fronts.

The administration drew criticism from a wide swath of companies over its executive order restricting immigration. More than 160 technology firms, including Amazon.com Inc., Facebook Inc., and Google corporate parent Alphabet Inc. joined a legal brief criticizing the order. Technology firms have also criticized the administration’s efforts to restrict access to H-1B visas for highly skilled workers, and eliminate an Obama administration program that would have provided visas for foreign entrepreneurs who received startup funding.

Other members of the Trump councils, including Lockheed Martin and PepsiCo. Inc., declined to say whether they will follow Frazier’s move and step down.

Merck has in the past taken stands on social issues.

In 2012, the 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 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 0.7 percent to $62.79 at 12:02 p.m. in New York, roughly in line with a broader advance in the U.S. stock market.

Toby Cosgrove, the CEO of the Cleveland Clinic, plans to remain on the strategy and policy group, said Eileen Sheil, a spokeswoman for the health system. She said the group has not met since April, and there are no meetings scheduled.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. CEO Lloyd Blankfein also took to Twitter on 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.

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