AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Today President Trump tried to keep his business agenda on track. He signed an executive order to speed up the permitting of highways and bridges.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We will rebuild our country with American workers, American iron, American aluminum, American steel.
CORNISH: But also today, more members of a White House council on manufacturing said they were stepping down after observing President Trump's response to the violence in Charlottesville, Va. NPR's Jim Zarroli has more.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Last February, Kevin Plank, the head of the clothing company Under Armour, generated a social media firestorm because of an appearance he made on CNBC. Plank's offense was to speak a little too enthusiastically about President Trump.
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KEVIN PLANK: I think he's highly passionate. He definitely is - you know, to have such a pro-business president is something that's a real asset for this country. I think people should really grab that opportunity.
ZARROLI: Yesterday, Plank joined the growing ranks of corporate leaders who are publicly cutting ties with Trump following his tepid statements about the Charlottesville violence this weekend. Plank stepped down from a White House advisory council on manufacturing. He said there is no place for racism and discrimination in this world. He follows the CEOs of Merck and Intel out the door. Nicholas Pearce is an associate professor of management at Northwestern's Kellogg School.
NICHOLAS PEARCE: I think these leaders are waking up to the fact that their continued silence in the face of mounting evidence of immorality is tantamount to consent.
ZARROLI: The defection of these CEOs underscores the dilemma that corporations face in a highly polarized and partisan era. University of Michigan business administration professor David Ulrich says many CEOs share President Trump's agenda of deregulation and tax cuts and want it to succeed. But they increasingly find it difficult to ignore Trump's personal behavior.
DAVID ULRICH: How do you begin to manage the balance between the person and the policy? And I can imagine these CEOs are really struggling to find that right balance between those two things.
ZARROLI: Ulrich says the dilemma is all the more difficult for another reason. By publicly cutting ties with the White House, the CEOs are giving up a seat at the table.
ULRICH: It's pretty easy for a CEO to say, these are my values; you violated them. But the CEOs who are smart know, once I back out of that opportunity to shape policy, the voice that I could have had is now lost.
ZARROLI: And Trump said in a tweet today that he won't have any trouble replacing the CEOs who quit. Meanwhile, several other CEOs made clear they're staying on the White House council. Alex Gorsky of Johnson & Johnson said in a statement that the company has a responsibility to remain engaged, not to support any political agenda but to make sure its values are represented as crucial public policy is developed.
The events in Charlottesville point to another challenge facing corporations. Companies can't risk allowing racial tensions to fester in the workplace. Michael LeRoy of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana says companies that do can face legal problems.
MICHAEL LEROY: I think you have to figure out who you are as an organization. And if you're going to tolerate that, then you're going to have to put up with litigation as to racial harassment and so forth.
ZARROLI: LeRoy says it's ultimately up to a top executive to set the right tone in the workplace and send a message that those kinds of tensions won't be tolerated. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.
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