How to Defy Trump and Avoid a Bruising: Intel’s CEO Shows how it’s Done

GettyImages-173561316-compressorAs hundreds of American CEOs await Donald Trump’s reaction to their legal salvo against his immigration ban, at least one is showing that clashing with the president won’t necessarily incur his wrath.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich yesterday appeared on national television alongside Trump to highlight a $7 billion U.S. factory investment. Only days earlier, the chip maker had joined more than 100 companies filing court papers opposing his controversial immigration ban.

By taking the legal route, CEOs like Krzanich went a step further than simply expressing a difference of opinion with the president, so tensions this week have been high as they braced for any fallout.

So far, though, Trump’s CEO-bashing weapon of choice, his Twitter account, has largely remained in its sheath. And then came Krzanich’s cheerful appearance with Trump, straight from the Oval Office.

“If you’re going to publicly and wholeheartedly disagree with Trump, it helps to work out the lay of the land first.

Here are 4 ways he’s managed to keep the peace.

1. Find some common ground, no matter how vague. Wednesday’s goodwill appears to be fueled by a willingness by both men to put their differences aside and focus on the things they have in common, such as an enthusiasm for less taxes and regulation.

“We’ve held off doing this investment until now,” Krzanich told reporters. “It’s really in support of the tax and regulatory policies that we see the administration pushing forward. That will really make it advantageous to do it in the U.S.”

Notice how Krzanich kept it reasonably vague: he didn’t embrace or slam any specific regulatory policy suggestions, such as a possible 35% import tariff. So he’s not welding himself to hypotheticals. It’s all about the positive vibe.

2. Have something to offer, even if it’s just publicity. It also was important for Krzanich to bring something to the table, even if the line between making a substantial U.S.-based investment and a public relations spectacle was a little blurred.

Back in 2011, Intel already had announced a $5 billion investment in the same factory, which has been partly built. The project remained incomplete due to a lack of product demand, but consumer interest in a wave of new products revived the business case for its completion.

“We’re making this investment now to meet demand that we now expect,” an Intel spokesman told CNNMoney. ” That said, we certainly join other companies in supporting the administration’s pro-business and pro-investment goals.”

3. Seek safety in numbers before unloading. If you’re going to publicly and wholeheartedly disagree with Trump, it helps to work out the lay of the land first. You don’t want to be like General Custer, leading the charge into battle and discovering that nobody has followed you over the hill.

What made the (mostly tech) CEO’s legal challenge to Trump so powerful was that it was presented on a united front, some days after leaders from other industries had spoken out in the press.

To be sure, Intel already had criticized the travel ban shortly after its announcement, indicating how passionately Krzanich and others at the company were in opposition. They may also have seen the broader public fallout coming.

4. If you must spar, try and keep it inside the tent. If you really must disagree with Trump, and don’t want him passing a policy that crushes your business, try and keep the lines of communication open. CEOs who already have suffered attacks, such as Boeing’s Dennis Muilenberg, have at least partially smoothed things over at subsequent face-to-face meetings to press their case.

Having the president’s ear also appears to have worked for Elon Musk—at least in Washington. The Tesla CEO didn’t seek safety in numbers by suggesting that Trump consider introducing a carbon tax. But his only main detractors so far appear to be fans concerned he and Trump are getting too chummy.

“When we disagree, we don’t walk away,” Intel’s Krzanich wrote in a letter to staff following his meeting with Trump. “We believe that we must be part of the conversation to voice our views on key issues such as immigration, H1B visas and other policies that are essential to innovation.”

CEOs not willing to follow any of these four approaches will have to brace for the consequences of a Trump tirade—and get to work assessing how much damage the administration could realistically do to their business.

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Ross Kelly
Ross Kelly is a London-based business journalist. He has been a staff correspondent or editor at The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Finance and the Australian Associated Press.

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