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Bob Iger’s Participation on Trump Panel Kicking Up a Storm

Variety logo Variety 1/31/2017 James Rainey
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With a growing number of U.S. business leaders speaking out against President Donald Trump, CEOs who have kept open lines of communication with the White House are feeling the heat.

Disney chief executive Bob Iger has taken a tongue lashing on social media and, on Tuesday, in an online petition, for participating in Trump’s strategic and policy advisory committee, which is scheduled to meet for the first time this week.

Bloggers who follow Disney’s theme park and film animation businesses have criticized Iger for what one called an “uncomfortable and potentially brand-damaging relationship.” Others have extrapolated, saying that Iger’s presence on the panel demonstrates his support of the new president. One Twitter critic called that “despicable,” while others raised the possibility of a Disney boycott.

A petition from corporate watchdog group SumOfUs called on Iger and other members of the Trump economic advisory group to speak out against the new president’s ban on refugees and travel from seven Muslim-majority nations. Participation on the panel, without condemning the travel ban, makes Iger and the others “complicit in the Trump’s Administrations cruel and un-American policies,” the group said.

An alternative viewpoint asserts that Iger, a Democrat, and other right-minded leaders can do more good by keeping lines of communication with the White House open, offering pushback on controversial policies like the travel ban. Iger’s allies say attacks on him and Disney are unfair, noting that he was a supporter of Hillary Clinton, who will use his position on the White House panel to offer alternatives to the Republican president’s objectionable policies. “He still isn’t a Trump supporter,” said one fan on Twitter. “What Iger is a part of is to innovate and expand economic opportunity in America.”

The controversy has been burbling on Twitter and other social media since the weekend but has not developed into an organized campaign against Disney or its CEO, like the boycott (hashtag #Delete Uber) targeting the ride-hailing service Uber because its founder, Travis Kalanick, took a seat on the economic advisory committee.

The Disney CEO is among other American business and political leaders who have muted, or withheld, criticism of Trump, some during the campaign and some since he took office January 20. They theorize that they will be able to do more good if they can keep talking to the polarizing leader. WME co-CEO Ari Emanuel, a Democrat and brother of President Obama’s former chief of staff, declined to comment or criticize Trump after a private meeting with the then-candidate. Former Vice President Al Gore has tamped down rebuttals to the president’s climate change denials, hoping to educate Trump about the global threat posed by rising global temperatures.

Disney did not respond to requests for comment.

Tech leaders in Silicon Valley have offered among the strongest condemnation’s of the Trump travel and visa policy. Reed Hastings, Netflix’s CEO, slammed the policy as violating American values. Google chief executive Sundar Pichai also lashed out at the Trump executive order and urged overseas employees to return to the U.S. The company is also raised $4 million for immigrants rights groups. Starbucks Chief Executive Howard Schultz said the “conscience of our country” was being tested by Trump’s actions. Lachlan and James Murdoch, executives atop 21st Century Fox, put out a statement supporting diversity and immigration.

Matthew Gottula, a blogger who closely follows theme parks run by Disney and other companies,  wrote that “other media companies have issued statements regarding company values as it relates to Trump presidency. So far Iger /Disney has not.”

But the calls for Iger to pull out of the advisory group — announced by the Trump administration in the first week of December — were far from universal. In response to Gottula’s note about Disney’s failure to speak out on Trump, another writer on Twitter responded: “I’d rather Iger have his ear than most everyone else around Trump. Can’t effect change if you’re not at the table.” Another tweet from the same person added: “Disney is an extremely diverse company. Hopefully Iger can demonstrate this and has a positive impact on Trump.”

The panel formed by Trump includes business leaders who are supposed to help the president “bring back jobs and make America great again,” according to the statement about its formation. The group will be chaired by Stephen A. Schwarzman, CEO of the giant private equity fund, Blackstone. Other members include JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, former Boeing CEO Jim McNerney, General Motors CEO Mary Barra and Rich Lesser. CEO of Boston Consulting Group. Iger is the only member from the entertainment industry.

On joining the panel two months ago, Iger called it “non-partisan” and said it would be “reflecting an array of individual perspectives from a cross-section of industries.” The Disney boss’s statement added: “I welcome the chance to be part of the important discussions about the most effective ways to grow jobs and expand economic opportunity in America.”

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