(NEW YORK) — Three days after Election Night 2020, dozens of CEOs from the nation’s largest companies logged into a Zoom call aiming to prevent the collapse of American democracy, according to several attendees who spoke to ABC News.
The night before, then-President Donald Trump had falsely declared victory in an address at the White House, pointing to a count of what he called “legal votes.”
“The CEOs were horrified,” Yale University Professor of Management Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, who convened the meeting, told ABC News. Hastily assembled, some of the chief executives showed up to the early-morning call in pajamas and most expressed grave concerns, he added.
Sonnenfeld and other meeting attendees declined to identify the CEOs who participated in the call, since they did so on condition of anonymity.
“There was recognition that if Trump pulled this off, it could turn the U.S. into something other than the country it was,” Tom Rogers, the founder of CNBC and a meeting participant, told ABC News.
The Business Roundtable, a trade association representing 200 top CEOs, including JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, released a statement the next day affirming the outcome of the election.
Weeks later, the Business Roundtable released another bulletin condemning the January 6 attack. On a follow-up conference call in mid-January, a survey of the CEOs in attendance showed nearly unanimous support for impeaching Trump, Sonnenfeld said. Many major companies also publicly promised to halt campaign donations to members of Congress who had voted against certification of the election results.
As another presidential election nears, Trump continues to deny the outcome of the previous election and vows to vigorously fight scores of felony charges, including allegations in two separate indictments of an illegal attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election outcome. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges on which he has been arraigned, and has denied wrongdoing in response to all related allegations. All the while, he has emerged as a formidable Republican frontrunner for the 2024 presidential election.
If elected, Trump has vowed to pursue perceived enemies, including in the Department of Justice, which is currently investigating him, and to go after familiar targets for Republicans, like President Joe Biden.
Corporate America, meanwhile, has largely receded from public comment on the issue of protecting federal elections. While some companies stood by their pledge to halt campaign contributions to election deniers, many resumed donations within a year, according to a report from the nonpartisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
In private, many CEOs acknowledge that democracy remains under threat, but business leaders face an increasingly fraught political environment as they weather Republican-led attacks over issues like socially conscious investing and diversity, equity and inclusion programs, former company executives and advocacy group leaders told ABC News, drawing on conversations with C-suite officials at large companies.
When asked about the democratic threat posed by Trump, Thomas Glocer, the former CEO of Thomson Reuters, said, “I worry about it — others do, too.”
“CEOs are now a little bit more reticent to step into the breach because the costs are more obvious,” added Glocer, who also attended the Zoom call in November 2020. “The real test becomes: When do people worry enough?”
This month, a rating agency downgraded U.S. credit for the second time in the nation’s history. Fitch Ratings cited the ballooning U.S. debt load and a weakening of governance, as well as the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, as considerations in their decision.
While it carries few short-term implications, the move marks a significant milestone on a path of increasing U.S. debt that could ultimately raise the nation’s borrowing costs and threaten economic growth, analysts previously told ABC News.
“A stable democracy is in the interest of business,” Daniella Ballou-Aares, CEO and co-founder of the Leadership Now Project, a membership organization made up of business leaders concerned about the future of U.S. democracy, told ABC News. “When you see political retribution and when you see a lack of faith in elections, it’s really dangerous for business.”
Trust in major institutions, including big business, has fallen significantly since the late 1970s, Gallup data shows. While surveys show 69% of Americans held at least some confidence in big business in 1979, by this year, the share who felt that way had declined to 56%.
Trust in corporate America has eroded recently in part due to the nation’s deep political divide, stoking scrutiny among some partisans regarding whether companies have sided with the opposing party, Richard Pildes, a constitutional law professor at New York University, told ABC News. Still, the trust that does remain offers CEOs an important role in preserving democratic stability, he added.
“There is definitely concern about not seeming to be engaged in partisan politics,” said Pildes, who also attended the Zoom call with CEOs in November 2020. “But on the other hand, many of them don’t feel they can stand back and just kind of passively ignore threats to the democratic process. Business leaders still have a lot of credibility with the public.”
So far, top business leaders have largely remained quiet about Trump’s 2024 candidacy and whether it poses a democratic threat. Some previous donors, including Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman, have vowed to forego contributions to Trump this time around. In May, JPMorgan Chase’s Dimon sharply criticized remarks made by Trump over the debt ceiling dispute, telling Bloomberg Television that the issue is just “one more thing he doesn’t know very much about.”
Business leaders remain torn over whether to publicly address threats facing U.S. democracy, including Trump, former executives and advocacy group leaders told ABC News, citing conversations with CEOs.
Some CEOs are holding out for the possibility that Trump will fail to secure the Republican presidential nomination, or that he will face devastating political consequences if he were to be convicted on any of the criminal charges he faces, they added.
“The willingness of business and business leaders to be proactive in this period in between [presidential elections] is mixed,” said Ballou-Aares, of the Leadership Now Project. “I think people are waiting a little bit around the primary.”
Elizabeth Doty, the Director of the Erb Institute’s Corporate Political Responsibility Taskforce at the University of Michigan, said Trump looms over conversations with C-suite officials about the 2024 election, even if his name isn’t mentioned.
“There are allusions to a volatile, wild ride coming down the pike,” Doty told ABC News. “My sense is that as election season starts to heat up in the fall, that will be on their radar and there’s a sense of dread.”
Sonnenfeld, who convened the November 2020 conference call with top CEOs, described them as “anxious” about Trump’s 2024 bid. However, he added, “they might be idealistic or naive. They don’t believe Trump will be the candidate in the final run of things.”
CEOs would speak out again if the 2024 presidential election brings a crisis akin to the previous contest, Sonnenfeld said. “I’m 100% certain,” he added. “They’re not looking for a fight but they will meet the moment.”
While affirming that CEOs would take action again in such circumstances, Ballou-Aares said she hopes they take steps sooner to help prevent a potential crisis like the one that followed the 2020 election. “We would like to do everything possible to avoid that,” Ballou-Ares said.
“I definitely think there’s been more business can do in the next year to create some bright lines of what are things that would be real threats to democracy that they’re willing to push back on if they occur,” Ballou-Ares added.
Daniel Kinderman, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware, who studies the role of business in safeguarding democracy, echoed that sentiment.
“Business leaders should decide what red lines they’re willing to stand for,” Kinderman told ABC News. “What aspects of our Constitution and our democratic positions are we willing to speak out and defend when those red lines are crossed?”
ABC News’ Tal Axelrod also contributed to this story.
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