Around this time every year, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld becomes one of the most important people in corporate America as host of the Yale School of Management's annual "CEO Summit."
The gathering of 300 top business executives, policymakers and a few journalists is regarded as among the most important confabs in business and politics, given the A-listers in attendance.
Sonnenfeld's role as the event's master of ceremonies is superficially easy: To elicit comments from top executives, policymakers and politicians as a nonpartisan academic.
The reality is far different. Nationalistic economic policymaking and trade wars pushed by the Trump administration have often rankled his targeted audience: The corporate and political elite that run the big banks, top companies and major think tanks.
Sonnenfeld, a veteran professor of management at the school, knows the program works best as a nonpartisan forum that seeks input and attendance from across the political spectrum as well as this White House.
But at this year's event held Wednesday via Zoom because of the coronavirus pandemic, Sonnenfeld’s political tightrope-walking was made even more difficult. Corporate America is reeling over the pandemic shutdown, with unemployment remaining high despite Friday’s better-than-expected jobs numbers.
Inside board rooms, there is a divisive debate over the administration’s handling of the crisis, including whether, for example, the president waited too long to acknowledge the pandemic and whether and how companies should bring their employees back to the office as the coronavirus recedes.
Sonnenfeld, meanwhile, may have added pressure on himself for inviting Trump's likely Democratic opponent in this fall's presidential election, Joe Biden, to speak to the group. At least one major invitee thought the former vice president would use the event as his political soapbox during an election year and said, at the very least, a Trump or a White House political adviser should have been present. This invitee boycotted the conference over the Biden issue, FOX Business has confirmed.
Then came the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody, and the riots that followed nationwide. The summit, which normally focuses on economic policy and corporate governance, was forced to shift gears to issues involving race -- an awkward topic for Corporate America since it remains overwhelmingly white and male.
By most accounts, Sonnenfeld maintained the event's nonpartisan format, albeit with a few hiccups. People who attended note the 2020 election was barely mentioned. The vast majority of the discussion involved CEOs and others making sweeping, albeit vague comments on how to spread economic equality -- such as how to find entrepreneurs in the inner cities that have been devastated by the outbreak of the virus and now the riots.
Others spoke about mandatory preschool education that will benefit minority communities, and how to give every family in the country internet access.
As for the Biden invite, Sonnenfeld said in an interview with FOX Business that he disagrees that it was overtly political or a mistake. Biden didn't say anything significantly controversial, according to a person who attended, even if he took a swipe at President Trump's potential plan to send the military into cities being ransacked by rioting and looting, which would be a rare use of the Insurrection Act.
Echoing Biden’s remarks was former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who served under two GOP presidents but has since become a fierce critic of the party and Trump. Powell also said he believed Trump was misguided for suggesting the use of military force to quell violent protests. Press officials for Biden and Powell didn't return FOX’s emails and calls for comments.
Biden "was a great guest," Sonnenfeld said, pointing out that the former vice president spoke during a segment of the event that featured politicians – the so-called “mayors conference” – which includes local leaders from both parties.
He said senior Trump officials, such as his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and trade representative Robert Lighthizer, were invited but couldn't attend because of scheduling conflicts. The White House didn't respond to requests for comment.
Sonnenfeld is a savvy enough player in finance to know you need ties to the White House, no matter who is in charge. He says he knows the president well and went out of his way to make sure the administration was represented this year. While he didn't invite Trump to this year’s summit, the president was invited to past meetings, Sonnenfeld says.
"I maintain very close relationships and personal friendships with high levels of this Administration...I helped at least three of them, perhaps four of them obtain their present top Trump Administration positions," he said in an email to FOX Business.
"This past year, I went on a Mideast mission at the request of the Administration. I talk with them weekly and talked personally with Donald Trump directly and often throughout his presidential campaign," Sonnenfeld added. "We seek balance always at these events but as you know, such figures have fluid schedules. All of our programs are cross-sectoral, non-partisan, and non-commercial."
As for the success of this year's event, held remotely against the difficult backdrop of social unrest, a pandemic and a national election, Sonnenfeld shared this email from one of the participants, Kay Koplovitz, founder of the USA Network, who called the meetings “extraordinary," adding that the "challenges at hand were so well articulated by the mayors, regardless of political affiliation…same could be said for the CEO session.”