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Report: Donohue to leave U.S. Chamber ahead of schedule

Leader of business lobby since 1997 made it a powerhouse; Clark reportedly tapped as CEO


Feb. 6, 2021

By William Ehart

U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Donohue will leave the giant business lobby sooner than expected and be succeeded by President Suzanne Clark, The Wall Street Journal reported late Friday, citing unnamed sources.

The original plan, announced in 2019, was for Donohue to retire next year. But the Journal reported that he decided to leave sooner after the board named Clark his successor.

Political news site Axios first reported the likelihood of the outcome Friday, but the Journal confirmed the news. A person familiar with the Chamber's plans told CEO Update the announcement would come Tuesday.

Clark was elevated to president in 2019 and the group said then that it would launch a search for his successor in three years.

A Chamber spokesperson pushed back on the reports when queried by CEO Update late Friday.

“The board is engaged in a rigorous multiyear succession process to name a new CEO. When a final decision has been reached, there will be an announcement,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

Donohue, 82, became Chamber CEO in 1997, transforming what was then an organization with declining political influence into an advocacy powerhouse. With take-home pay of nearly $6.7 million in 2019, he is the nation’s highest-paid—and arguably most influential—association CEO and his position is one of Washington, D.C.’s most coveted jobs. The Chamber, including its foundation and other affiliates, reported revenue of $277 million in 2019.

Donohue meeting staff in 1997
Incoming CEO Tom Donohue addresses staff in 1997. Photo courtesy of Hagley Museum.

But recent years have been rockier for Donohue. His early and blunt implicit criticisms of Donald Trump during the Republican primaries did him no favors when Trump won the presidency.

At his 2016 State of American Business Address, Donohue said, without naming Trump, “(T)here are voices—sometimes very loud voices—who talk about walling off America from talent and trade and who are attacking whole groups of people based not on their conduct but their ethnicity or religion,” Donohue said. “This is morally wrong and politically stupid,” he said.

The Chamber and other business groups also clashed with the administration on trade and immigration policies.

The increasing polarization of politics over the years has diminished the ranks of business-friendly centrists favored by the Chamber.

The group played a major role, in terms of money spent, in the GOP takeover of the House of Representatives in 2010. But the Tea Party Republicans swept into power then showed little interest in governing and compromise, though they did attempt to chip away at Obamacare, portions of which the Chamber had challenged in court.

The Chamber’s generous support of Republicans continued, as it spent more than $100 million supporting GOP candidates over the past 10 years.

And while Trump-aligned lawmakers passed huge tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy in 2017, business groups were vexed by a mercurial president governing in part through threatening tweets, who imposed tariffs, fought trade wars and continued to bash immigrants for political gain.

Then, last year, the Chamber endorsed nearly two dozen freshman Democratic members of Congress, in addition to nine other Democratic House candidates. That unusual move set off internal turmoil—longtime top political strategist Scott Reed quit (he says) or was fired (the Chamber said). In subsequent news articles, Reed was quoted harshly criticizing Donohue and alluding to his advanced age. President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence also reportedly gave Donohue an earful over the decision.

But when Clark’s presidency was announced in 2019, she said unequivocally that the Chamber was not a one-party wonder.

“If anybody here ever thought of themselves as working for a partisan place, they should stop,” Clark told The Washington Post. “Because if we are for free trade, we have to be for whoever wants to work with us on that.”

Donohue also came under fire after a report in The Wall Street Journal in 2019 that he had made use of the Chamber’s private jet for personal trips, at Chamber expense.

Jeff Birnbaum, president of public relations at lobbying and communications firm BGR, and a longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and author of books about money in politics, said Donohue’s achievements were great.

“Tom Donohue did what almost no one imagined was possible: He turned around a floundering U.S. Chamber of Commerce and built it into the unrivaled, powerhouse advocate of American business it is today both here and around the world,” Birnbaum told CEO Update in an email.

“Suzanne Clark is Tom’s brilliant protege who proved herself through hard work and uncanny skill and talent to be his natural successor. She is an inspired choice in a new era to be a leading voice of American business,” Birnbaum said.