By Darlene Superville
and Julie Bykowicz
Wire Service Correspondent
NEW YORK (AP) – With corporate chieftains fleeing, President Donald Trump abruptly abolished their White House business councils on Wednesday – the latest fallout from his combative comments on racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In a face-saving effort, he tweeted from Trump Tower in New York: “Rather than putting pressure on the businesspeople of the Manufacturing Council & Strategy & Policy Forum, I am ending both. Thank you all!”
A growing number of business leaders have been resigning from the advisory panels, openly expressing their displeasure with Trump’s comments, including his insistence that “both sides” were to blame for weekend violence that left one woman dead and led to a helicopter crash that killed two state troopers.
On Wednesday, Denise Morrison, chief executive of Campbell Soup, declared she was leaving Trump’s manufacturing council, saying, “The president should have been – and still needs to be – unambiguous” in denouncing the white supremacists who organized the Charlottesville rally.
CEOs began tendering their resignations from White House councils after Trump’s first comments on Saturday after the violence. The first to step down, Kenneth Frazier of Merck, drew a Twitter tongue-lashing from the president. Then, barely 24 hours before disbanding the councils, Trump called those who were leaving “grandstanders” and insisted many others were eager to take their places.
A few fellow Republican leaders are going after Trump, too.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said Wednesday the president “took a step backward by again suggesting there is moral equivalency” between the marching white supremacists and the people who had been demonstrating against them.
Former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney tweeted a similar slap shortly after the president’s explosive press conference on Tuesday: “No, not the same. One side is racist, bigoted, Nazi. The other opposes racism and bigotry. Morally different universes.”
Other leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, made forceful anti-racism statements – but steered clear of mentioning Trump and his comments.
Under pressure, Trump made his condemnation of the Charlottesville violence more specific on Monday, naming white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis. But he returned to his defiant self on Tuesday, effectively erasing the statement he’d read a day earlier.
In a raucous press conference in the lobby of his skyscraper, he said there were “some very bad people” among those who gathered to protest Saturday. But he added: “You also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
Publicly criticizing the president and resigning from his councils is a significant step for big-name corporate leaders. Though the policy influence of such advisory groups is sometimes questionable, simply meeting with Trump with TV cameras going is valuable face-time for the executives – and for the president.
After his latest tweets, Trump left New York for his New Jersey golf club where he was scheduled to remain out of public view for the rest of the day.
As he navigates this latest controversy, the White House on Wednesday said his longtime aide Hope Hicks would temporarily step into the role of communications director. Hicks is White House director of strategic communications, and a near-constant presence at the president’s side.
She served as spokeswoman for Trump’s presidential campaign and worked for years in public relations for the Trump Organization and his daughter’s fashion and lifestyle brand.
Trump had no public appearances on Wednesday, yet made his presence felt online.
In addition to announcing the dissolution of the business councils via tweet, he also congratulated Sen. Luther Strange for advancing to a runoff in the Alabama special election to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ seat.
He also retweeted someone complimenting him on the stock market’s gains and consumer confidence highs and wrote that Heather Heyer, the woman mowed down by a car during the Charlottesville violence, was “beautiful and incredible.”
Trump said Tuesday that he had planned to call her family to offer condolences, but the White House did not answer questions Wednesday about whether he’d yet done so.
Bykowicz reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire and Josh Boak contributed to this report.