Merck CEO speaks up on Trump: Charlottesville response defied our country's 'basic values'

American Manufacturing Council, Trump, Merck, Frazier
Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier thought his company could add a lot to Trump's manufacturing council but ultimately pulled out because he disagreed with the president's views. (Reuters)

In a much-publicized surprise at the time, Merck’s Kenneth Frazier resigned from President Donald Trump's manufacturing council last August, just after the violence at a white supremacists’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Trump had insisted that the Charlottesville episode involved wrongdoing “on many sides." Amid the controversy that ensued, Frazier's action spoke louder than words: Merck posted only a short tweet saying Frazier felt he had to “take a stand against intolerance and extremism.” And though Frazier wouldn’t comment beyond the tweet, other business leaders followed his lead, and the president shuttered the council.

Now Frazier is breaking his silence. And as it turns out, it’s not just the president’s response to Charlottesville that irks him. Even before that happened, Frazier disapproved of Trump’s actions on immigration and climate change, he told the New York Times in a new interview.

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But it wasn’t until clashes between white supremacists and counterprotesters led to the death of a young woman and Trump responded with the “many sides” comment that Frazier felt he had to make a public statement.

“In that moment, the president’s response was one that I felt was not in concordance with my views,” Frazier told the Times. “And I didn’t think they were in concordance with the views that we claim to hold as a country.”

Frazier added that he did consult with Merck’s board prior to making the decision to pull out of the manufacturing council. “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. My board supported that 100%,” he said.

The announcement, which came on a Monday, was met with condemnation from Trump, who suggested on Twitter that Frazier’s resignation from the manufacturing council would give him “more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!” That day, it looked as though Frazier would be alone in his protest, but by Wednesday, several other CEOs had departed, including Johnson & Johnson’s Alex Gorsky.

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Frazier, a lawyer by training, isn’t all that interested in politics, he told the Times. He initially joined the manufacturing council because he believed Merck “has something to contribute to the discussion about how we could as a country become much more competitive in the global economy,” he said. He had stayed mum on Trump’s efforts to restrict immigration, but said he had to speak out when the president didn’t initially condemn the actions of the white nationalists in Charlottesville.

“In this case, we were not talking about politics. We were talking about the basic values of the country,” he said.

That Frazier is largely at odds with the president over several issues may seem surprising, considering that Merck is among the many Big Pharma companies expected to benefit from the Republicans’ business-friendly tax package. But he’s not alone in his concerns about the possible fallout from restrictive immigration policies. When Trump signed an order last year temporarily banning travel from seven largely Muslim countries, several biotech executives griped loudly that the action would limit their ability to attract talented scientists.

“Oppose any policy that puts limitation on our ability to attract the best & diverse talent,” said Allergan CEO Brent Saunders on Twitter.

What does Frazier think about the president’s occasional rants on drug prices? The CEO didn’t respond to Trump’s vitriolic tweet after Merck pulled out of the manufacturing council, nor did he address the issue in the new Times interview. But Frazier doesn’t seem worried about the prospect of the government stepping in to control drug prices. "While we are going to continue to see incremental pressure on pricing, I don't see anything from the public agencies or through the private payers,” he said during the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in January.