Kenneth Frazier, chief executive of the pharmaceuticals company Merck, served on one of Trump’s business advisory councils but resigned last summer over Trump’s response to an outburst of white-nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
One of the nation’s most powerful black chief executives is breaking his silence after publicly sparring with President Donald Trump last year.
Kenneth Frazier, chief executive of the pharmaceuticals company Merck, served on one of Trump’s business advisory councils in the early days of the administration.
But after Trump equivocated in his response to an outburst of white-nationalist violence last August in Charlottesville, Virginia, the advisory groups swiftly unraveled.
Education: B.A. in political science from Pennsylvania State University, law degree from Harvard
Career: Worked at Philadelphia law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath before joining Merck in 1992. Became CEO in 2011.
Compensation: $21.8 million in fiscal year 2016
Source: NYT, S&P Capital IQ
Frazier, the grandson of a man born into slavery, was the first of a series of chief executives to distance himself from the president. “I feel a responsibility to take a stand against extremism,” he wrote on Merck’s Twitter account at the time.
In a recent interview with The New York Times, Frazier elaborated for the first time on his motivation for taking a stance.
“It was my view that to not take a stand on this would be viewed as a tacit endorsement of what had happened and what was said,” Frazier said. “I think words have consequences and I think actions have consequences. I just felt that as a matter of my own personal conscience, I could not remain.”
The events that led to Frazier’s confrontation with the president unfolded over a tense summer weekend, as white nationalists gathered in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. Bloody fighting broke out as they clashed with counterdemonstrators, one of whom was killed when a self-described neo-Nazi drove his car into a crowd of people.
“I saw what was happening on that Friday night, and then I heard the horrible news about what had happened on Saturday with the young woman being killed, and others being run down by a person who was sympathetic to people who held views that I consider personally noxious,” Frazier said. “And then I heard the president’s response.”
Trump, speaking at a veterans’ event at one of his golf clubs, condemned the violence but did not criticize the white nationalists chanting neo-Nazi slogans, blaming “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”
The president’s remarks drew widespread condemnation for appearing to equate the actions of the counterprotesters with those of neo-Nazis, and many Americans, including Frazier, found them deeply inadequate.
“In that moment, the president’s response was one that I felt was not in concordance with my views,” Frazier said. “And I didn’t think they were in concordance with the views that we claim to hold as a country.”
Before announcing his decision to resign from the president’s manufacturing council, Frazier consulted with the Merck board.
“I wanted to say that this was a statement I was making in terms of my own values, and the company’s values, and there was unanimous support for that,” he said. “My board supported that 100 percent.”
Then, on Monday morning, Merck posted a statement from Frazier on Twitter.
“I am resigning from the President’s American Manufacturing Council,” it read in part. “Our country’s strength stems from its diversity and the contributions made by men and women of different faiths, races, sexual orientations and political beliefs.”
The president, not one to let a slight go, swiftly hit back on Twitter.
“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 president wrote.
For most of that Monday, Frazier was the lonely voice of opposition among business leaders, with few CEOs offering their support for him. But on Monday night, the chief executives of Intel and Under Armour also stepped down from the advisory groups.
By Wednesday, dozens of the country’s top chief executives had reached the same conclusion: They could no longer be part of the advisory councils. The groups were disbanded.
Frazier doesn’t regret his initial decision to advise the president.
“I joined because I think Merck is an important company and has something to contribute to the discussion about how we could as a country become much more competitive in the global economy,” he said. “I joined because the president asked me to join, and I thought it was the right thing to do as the CEO of a company like Merck.”
And Trump’s remarks after Charlottesville were not the first time that Frazier found himself at odds with the president.
“There were things that happened earlier on in this administration that I didn’t necessarily agree with, about immigration and climate change, but I didn’t think that it was my role to actually speak out on those issues,” he said. “There’s a process for deciding how we address those issues as a country. This is a democracy.”
But he viewed Trump’s unwillingness to condemn white nationalists as different.
“In this case, we were not talking about politics,” Frazier continued. “We were talking about the basic values of the country.”
Frazier did not respond to the president’s tweet, and has not spoken publicly about the incident until now.
For a man who rose to the pinnacle of corporate America, Frazier came from a humble background. His grandfather was born into slavery in South Carolina, and his father was a janitor in Philadelphia. Yet Frazier’s parents pushed him to believe he could achieve great things.
“They believed that despite the history of this country as it related to African Americans, that for my siblings and I, there would be tremendous opportunity,” he said. “They also instilled that it was our responsibility to take advantage of the opportunities that they did not have.”
Frazier attended Pennsylvania State University. After earning a degree from Harvard Law School, he went to work at Drinker Biddle & Reath, a law firm in Philadelphia. While there, he began representing Merck, and also took on pro bono work.
He spent several summers in South Africa teaching black law students. And he took on the case of James Willie “Bo” Cochran, a black inmate on death row who had been convicted of killing a white store manager.
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After looking at the evidence, Frazier and his colleagues became convinced of Cochran’s innocence. They eventually secured him a new trial, and he was acquitted in 1997.
“It was by far the most important thing that I’ve ever done in my life, full stop, professionally,” Frazier said. “This is a man who was facing an execution date for a crime he did not commit.”
Frazier joined Merck in 1992 and rose through the ranks, overseeing the company’s defense against lawsuits related to the anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx, and, as chief executive since 2011, prioritizing the development of drugs to treat cancer.
In the 1980s, Merck developed a treatment for river blindness and opted to give it away. “Many people would say that was the spark for a lot of what we call corporate social responsibility,” Frazier said.
Early in his tenure as chief executive, Frazier resisted calls to cut research and development spending and focus on profitability. “We value R&D as a company,” he said. “It’s who we are.”
Frazier has little interest in dwelling on his feud with Trump and would rather stay out of politics altogether. Yet when confronted last summer with a stance he considered unconscionable, Frazier said he could not help but speak out.
“What happened that weekend I think was not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue,” he said. “I think that really went to the core of who we say we are as Americans.”