Wikimedia Commons

On Saturday, the Financial Times reported that Stephen A. Schwarzman ’69 “defended Donald Trump’s response to this year’s US poll results” at a meeting of prominent CEOs, reigniting questions over whether the University should have given the donor naming rights to the Schwarzman Center. 

But Yale School of Management professor and senior associate dean of leadership programs Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, who hosted the meeting, claims that the Financial Times misconstrued Schwarzman’s comments. Schwarzman defended only Trump’s right to legal action, Sonnenfeld said, not the president’s denial of the election results.

The meeting, held on Nov. 6, was called to determine how business executives could best collectively handle a president who refused to leave office, while remaining neutral with the party currently in charge, Sonnenfeld told the News in a phone call. A total of 30 major CEOs including Schwarzman —  who is chairman and CEO of The Blackstone Group, as well as a prominent Yale donor — attended the 7 a.m. meeting. All parties agreed that they should fortify and “ensure public trust” in the democratic process, Sonnenfeld said.

But there are conflicting accounts of the comments that Schwarzman allegedly made during the meeting. The Financial Times reported that Schwarzman defended Trump’s right to challenge election results in court and anticipated that the legal process would run its course. Sonnenfeld, however, told the News that Schwarzman did not defend Trump in any regard. And on Monday, Schwarzman said that “it looks like Joe Biden” had won the 2020 presidential election, Bloomberg reported.

Schwarzman’s relationship with Trump, and his financial contributions to Trump’s campaign, came into the spotlight at Yale after Schwarzman gifted $150 million to build the Schwarzman Center to replace Commons, the University’s central dining hall that closed for renovations in 2017. This donation immediately raised controversy, as some faculty and students felt that the money could be better spent on other projects across campus, and that given some of Schwarzman’s behavior and business practices, the University should not honor him by naming the Center after him.

The meeting

The meeting was initially called in response to Trump’s news conference on the night of Nov. 5, when three major news networks — NBC, ABC and CBS — broke away from coverage of the conference in order to correct misinformation that Trump was spreading.

“While that was happening, it was so jarring that I got an email from one very prominent CEO to another … and then a third called in and the thing started to mushroom,” Sonnenfeld told the News. “I suggested we should pull a group together and do something next week, and they said that we can’t wait because this is a matter of national urgency.”

That night, Sonnenfeld –– who is the president of SOM’s Chief Executive Leadership Institute, which brings together top business executives throughout the year for invitation-only CEO Summits –– reached out to 35 CEOs of major companies, 30 of whom were able to attend the impromptu meeting the next morning. He said that the five executives who could not make the meeting were still “very enthusiastic” about it and wished to stay engaged. Attendees included Schwarzman, Disney Executive Chairman Robert Iger and Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky, according to the Associated Press.

At the meeting, the CEOs spoke about what to do in the event that Trump refuses to concede the election or leave the White House. According to Sonnenfeld, many of the CEOs were using the certification of the Georgia election, which is expected by Nov. 20, as the deadline for when Trump must accept defeat before public action becomes necessary.

Sonnenfeld also invited Yale professor of history and author of the book, “On Tyranny,” Timothy Snyder to address the group on the history of coups and attempted coups, specifically in democracies. 

Snyder spoke at the meeting’s opening about how some democracies have weakened and failed after elections, and that there is a possibility that GOP legislators would change the election outcome through redirecting Electoral College votes, the AP reported

According to Sonnenfeld, Snyder described how democracies are often weakened from within, particularly when business leaders fail to uphold them. Sonnenfeld added that Snyder spoke to the importance of an immediate response from business leaders. Snyder declined to comment for this article.

Sonnenfeld said that all meeting attendees expressed a desire to “ensure public trust” in the democratic process.

“There was no parochial self-interest, no corporate strategic angles that [the CEOs] were arguing,” Sonnenfeld said. “This was 100 percent a spirit of patriotism and common concern that alarmed them.”

Some of the business executives present at the Nov. 6 meeting were part of the Business Roundtable, a nonprofit association of CEOs of major U.S. companies that promotes public policy favorable to business interests. 

One day after the meeting, on Nov. 7, the Business Roundtable issued a statement congratulating President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on their election. The statement also addressed the lawsuits that the Trump campaign is pursuing to challenge the results of the election. Sonnenfeld described the statement as “extraordinarily clear and forceful.”

“While we respect the Trump campaign’s right to seek recounts, to call for investigation of alleged voting irregularities where evidence exists and to exhaust legitimate legal remedies, there is no indication that any of these would change the outcome,” the statement said. 

Sonnenfeld said that he has convened similar — but typically in-person — meetings in the past to address issues facing the business world.

Schwarzman’s involvement in the meeting

The meeting and Yale’s ties to it became controversial after the Financial Times reported that Schwarzman had defended Trump’s response at the meeting. The Financial Times cited three anonymous meeting participants who said Schwarzman “took issue” with Snyder’s claims that the U.S. could be on the threshold of a coup.

According to Vice President of Global Public Affairs at The Blackstone Group Thomas Clements, Schwarzman was asked at the meeting to respond to Snyder’s warnings about a potential coup.

Accounts differ as to what Schwarzman said next. The Financial Times reported that Schwarzman “asked whether other participants did not find it surprising” that early votes in Pennsylvania strongly favored Trump, while mail-in ballots — counted later — swung in favor of Biden. According to the Financial Times, Schwarzman then said that some ballots had arrived days after the election, and may not all have been real.

But Sonnenfeld disputed the Financial Times’ reporting. He said that “one very prominent CEO” — he did not name Schwarzman, as the meeting participants are confidential — noted that many members of the public were confused over the ballot-counting process, with respect to how Democratic mail-in ballots turned many states blue after election night. This CEO did not repeat Trump’s claims of election fraud, nor the president’s false claim that he won the election, according to Sonnenfeld.

“Schwarzman never defended President Trump’s assertion that this was an unfair election or a stolen election,” Sonnenfeld said. “Nobody said that. Nobody came close to even suggesting that.”

Sonnenfeld said he has a verbatim transcript of the meeting which contradicts the Financial Times’ reporting. Additionally, he said, three former U.S. Cabinet officials present at the meeting would also dispute the claims. The Financial Times article claims that Schwarzman defended Trump’s response to the election results, which Sonnenfeld said is “100 percent false.” Despite multiple requests, Sonnenfeld refused to provide the News with a copy of the transcript nor identify or connect the News with any of the meeting’s attendees, citing the off-the-record nature of the meeting.

Clements said that Schwarzman merely responded to Snyder’s warnings of a potential coup with faith the election process would play out fairly.

“Steve was asked to respond to comments about a potential coup d’état and simply shared his beliefs that the electoral system is sound and that the democratic process will play out in an orderly manner,” Clements wrote in an email to the News.

“Anything that can be done that reaffirms that counting and production of ballots is done in a correct fashion is great for the system. People want to believe in the system. People have confidence in the system. Nobody will be allowed to override the system,” Schwarzman said, according to a transcript excerpt provided by Sonnenfeld, who did not explicitly name the speaker, and confirmed by Clements. The News was unable to confirm what else Schwarzman may have said.

In emails to Financial Times editors reviewed by the News, Sonnenfeld requested that the Financial Times correct its article — removing the headline and altering the story’s lede. Both state that Schwarzman defended Trump. But Roula Khalaf, editor of the Financial Times, declined that request, telling Sonnenfeld that the story was based on information from multiple sources.

Khalaf commented further in an email to the News that “the FT [the Financial Times] stands by the story.”

Though the paper will not retract its story without Sonnenfeld producing his transcript or other evidence disputing the reporting, it printed a letter to the editor on Tuesday that Sonnenfeld penned asserting that Schwarzman did not defend Trump.

“I believe a report in The Financial Times this weekend about a gathering that I convened on November 6 mischaracterized certain remarks by Stephen Schwarzman … [and] the article’s emphasis missed the true distinctive contribution of this event,” Sonnenfeld’s letter to the editor reads. “These facts are backed up by solid evidence — such as recollections from bipartisan participants including three former US cabinet officials as well as a verbatim transcript. I was the sole convener and moderator of this unique historic impromptu gathering.”

Renaming the Schwarzman Center?

After the Financial Times article was published, several Yale professors — including Gregg Gonsalves ’11, Jason Stanley and Samuel Moyn — took to Twitter to write about the University’s ties to Schwarzman, who has previously come under fire for his business dealings and close relationship with Donald Trump.

Schwarzman is known as a strong supporter of Trump. He briefly served as chairman of Trump’s strategic and policy forum. This year alone, he spent $27 million funding U.S. politicians, including President Trump. 

Along with donations to Trump, Schwarzman gave $150 million to transform Yale’s Commons into the Schwarzman Center in May 2015. The Center’s goal is to serve as a new hub for student life.

But faculty and students have criticized the University for giving naming rights to Schwarzman, whose company, The Blackstone Group, has been accused of contributing to the global housing crisis and deforestation in the Amazon. In March of last year, an independent special rapporteur to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights sent a letter to Schwarzman alleging his company’s practices have “a grave impact on the enjoyment of the right to adequate housing for millions of people across the world.”

Gonsalves, an Assistant Professor in Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases, wrote on social media that “[Yale] is in [Schwarzman’s] pocket. Schwarzman scholars, Schwarzman center, why not just call it Schwarzman university?” 

James Sleeper ’69, a political science lecturer who retired last year after 21 years at Yale, said that the committee that renamed Calhoun College to Grace Hopper College should reconvene to find a new name for the Schwarzman Center.

In its report renaming the residential college, the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming found that renaming on account of values should be an “exceptional event” but is sometimes warranted.

Sleeper has long been an outspoken critic of Schwarzman.

“At the Nov 6 meeting Schwarzman tried to deflect most participants’ alarm at Tim Snyder’s warning that Trump was pursuing the authoritarian scenario of a coup,” Sleeper wrote in an email to the News. “Yale cannot name Commons for an enabler of authoritarianism without losing its mission and its soul.”

The University did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Responding to Sleeper’s statements, Clements wrote that “There is absolutely no basis for these slanderous statements, which were made by an individual who has zero direct knowledge of the discussion in question. These run counter to Professor Sonnenfeld’s account and show a complete disregard for the facts of the situation.”

Sonnenfeld’s next CEO Summit is scheduled to be held Dec. 15.

Julia Brown | julia.k.brown@yale.edu

Madison Hahamy | madison.hahamy@yale.edu

Rose Horowitch | rose.horowitch@yale.edu