Apple Inc. Chief Executive Tim Cook joined the chorus of leaders of high-profile U.S. companies who have felt compelled to share their views on Donald Trump's response to Saturday's white-supremacist protests amid widespread unease on the part of their employees, customers and others.
Mr. Cook called the events in Charlottesville, Va., "repulsive" in an email to employees, saying he disagrees "with the president and others" who see a moral equivalence between white supremacists and Nazis on one side and those who oppose them by standing up for human rights on the other.
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"Equating the two runs counter to our ideals as Americans," Mr. Cook wrote in the email late Wednesday, a copy of which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. He said he felt compelled to speak out on the events, which he found personally troubling, in part because he heard from many people at Apple "who are saddened, outraged or confused."
"What occurred in Charlottesville has no place in our country," he wrote. "We must not witness or permit such hate and bigotry in our country, and we must be unequivocal about it. This is not about the left or the right, conservative or liberal. It is about human decency and morality."
Mr. Cook's memo echoed sentiment expressed in staff memos penned this week by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. CEO Doug McMillon, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. chief James Dimon and Ernst & Young Global Chairman and CEO Mark Weinberger. Mr. McMillon said Mr. Trump had "missed a critical opportunity to help bring our country together by unequivocally rejecting the appalling actions of white supremacists."
Aetna Inc. Chief Executive Mark Bertolini said in a memo to his staff that he was "ashamed of our President's behavior and comments. ...We are not a country of hate, and we are all judged by our own god based on the compassion and humanity we show others."
Beyond the sheer number of prominent CEOs taking such public action, the memos are noteworthy because they don't address administrative policy positions that affect day-to-day business, but rather rebuke the president on his leadership approach on a broad social and moral issue. The executives' overarching message was that they couldn't remain silent as the president appeared to equate white supremacists and Nazis with counterprotesters standing against racism.
William W. George, a Harvard Business School professor and former chief executive of device-maker Medtronic PLC, said that while corporate leaders have in the past criticized policy decisions by previous administrations, such direct opposition to a president is unusual.
"I've never seen this before," Mr. George said. CEOs he had spoken to said they "didn't want to embarrass the president, but they felt they needed to stand up and be counted in the absence of moral clarity from the White House."
Not all CEOs who weighed in on the past week's controversy directly criticized Mr. Trump. International Business Machines Corp. chief Ginni Rometty, for example, didn't mention the president directly in her memo criticizing the actions in Charlottesville and calling for unity, which she sent staff after the dissolution of the President's Strategic and Policy Forum, on which she sat.
The CEOs' criticism of the president marked a departure from some of the optimism many expressed at the outset of the Trump administration that the new president would be a business-friendly leader who would revise the tax code and reduce regulation.
Much of that goodwill had eroded even before this week, thanks to policies that many executives and employees opposed. Tech executives and workers, many of whom were born abroad, were especially angered by Mr. Trump's initial immigration order that banned entry to the U.S. of nationals from seven majority-Muslim nations.
Mr. Cook sent memos to employees about the immigration ban and about Mr. Trump's June withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, but those emails focused on the company's support of immigration and the belief that climate change is real. They stopped short of directly criticizing the president as Mr. Cook did in his email this week.
Mr. Cook's latest memo also said Apple will contribute $1 million each to the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League. The company also plans to match employee contributions 2-for-1 to those organizations and other human-rights groups through next month, and to enable iTunes customers to join in contributing to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"These have been dark days, but I remain as optimistic as ever that the future is bright," Mr. Cook said.
Write to Tripp Mickle at Tripp.Mickle@wsj.com and Kelsey Gee at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
August 17, 2017 19:59 ET (23:59 GMT)