President Donald Trump for now has abandoned plans to create a new task force to help revive the nation’s economy after the coronavirus outbreak, according to two people familiar with the matter, and instead is holding a marathon series of calls on Wednesday with U.S. business leaders.
As the outbreak shows signs of plateauing in the country, corporate executives are being asked to advise Trump on how to resume something approaching normal business and social life. Trump was scheduled to speak with more than 200 leaders from nearly every corner of the U.S. economy in four calls.
Several of the companies and other participants said they found out they were invited only after Trump announced their names in a Rose Garden news conference on Tuesday or from a subsequent White House statement. They said they didn’t know the format or the purpose of the calls, and some expressed doubt the exercise would be productive.
The calls began Wednesday morning in Washington. The White House said the discussions would include chief executive officers of some of the country’s largest and most prominent companies, including Tim Cook of Apple Inc., Doug McMillon of Walmart Inc. and Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase & Co.
In the call with financial services leaders, executives expressed the need for more virus testing so people feel comfortable returning to work, and said they’re trying to secure their own diagnostic capabilities, a person familiar with the matter said. No specific reopening date was discussed. The content of the call was reported earlier by the Wall Street Journal.
We are having very productive calls with the leaders of every sector of the economy who are all-in on getting America back to work, and soon. More to come! #MAGA
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 15, 2020
Planning for the calls appeared to be improvisational. People familiar with the matter said that multiple senior aides and White House offices were involved -- particularly Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his associates. Trump himself pushed to expand participation, expressing a desire for titans of industry to advise him, one of the people said.
White House officials were unable to describe how the various industry groups would operate beyond Wednesday’s conference calls. They said the industry group members were e-mailed an invitation Tuesday afternoon.
‘Very Great’ Doctors
The format is much different than Trump initially described last week, when he said he would create a council of “very great” doctors and business people to advise him. The impression was a group akin to the coronavirus task force already guiding the administration’s public health strategy.
Outside allies began to submit names of a potential network of advisers in mid-March and later there were discussions inside the White House about forming a council that included top administration officials, including Kushner and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, among others.
Plans for a second, smaller task force that includes Trump administration officials are no longer on the table, at least for now, according to the two people who described the White House’s thinking.
While the sheer size and diversity of the new group will allow Trump to hear a broad range of opinions, it likely won’t provide an environment for in-depth debate on pressing questions such as whether the U.S. has sufficient testing capacity for the virus or which sectors of the economy should be among the first to go back to work.
‘Give Us Some Ideas’
Even more executives could nonetheless be added to the groups in the future, according to two people familiar with the plans.
“They’re going to give us some ideas,” Trump said Tuesday at a Rose Garden news conference, introducing the panels that the White House called the “Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups.”
Trump said last week the re-opening group he envisioned would be “bipartisan.” While the corporate executives have varying political leanings -- Jeff Bezos, the Amazon Inc. CEO who has been a Trump foil for years, is among them -- the calls include academics from conservative research groups with ties to the White House, such as the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation.
No similar Democratic groups or lawmakers will participate.
Many of the executives also are close to Trump, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone Group Inc. The group also includes a few people who have criticized Trump in the past, such as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
“This is such a moving target that I think the biggest mistake we can make is rush to a decision, but I’m going to help him in every way I can, whatever he needs me to do,” Cuban said on Fox News on Wednesday.
Trump’s list includes “thought leaders” such as Stephen Moore, who advised his campaign in 2016 and now serves as a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Moore told Fox Business Network he didn’t have details about “how this task force is going to operate,” but that he’ll lobby for a quick reopening.
“The top priority right now is we have got to get the economy up and running hopefully next week, at the latest of May 1, because what our economic projections are showing is that if you keep this economy shut down into June, the economic calamity is unthinkable,” he told Fox Business Network on Tuesday.
Trump said that Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO labor union, would be there. Trumka was not asked to join ahead of the White House announcement, his spokeswoman said. “He’ll be on the call to see if it’s a serious effort,” spokeswoman Carolyn Bobb said.
One CEO was contacted by the White House on Wednesday morning to participate on a call with the president, according to one person at the firm. The company expressed misgivings about participating, but also believed that backing out might prompt an angry response from Trump.
Another company and person invited to participate expressed concerns that the calls would not be a productive way to offer advice and influence policy decisions.
Last Minute Confusion
One person who works at a bank invited to the call said multiple CEOs were contacted at the last minute and there was confusion as to why the White House tried to wrangle banking executives onto a conference call during earnings season.
All requested anonymity to describe internal thinking.
The White House released its list of participants on Tuesday evening. “These bipartisan groups of American leaders will work together with the White House to chart the path forward toward a future of unparalleled American prosperity,” the White House said in a statement, without elaborating on how they may shape the administration’s policies.
In addition to Dimon, Trump’s list of calls includes a slate of executives from Wall Street: Brian Moynihan of Bank of America Corp.; David Solomon of Goldman Sachs Group Inc.; James Gorman of Morgan Stanley; Michael Corbat of Citigroup Inc.; Charles Scharf of Wells Fargo & Co.; and Ken Griffin of Citadel LLC.
Also set to be on the calls: Darren Woods of Exxon Mobil Corp.; Satya Nadella of Microsoft Corp.; John Malone of Liberty Media Corp.; Fred Smith of FedEx Corp.; Oscar Munoz of United Airlines Inc.; Juan Luciano of Archer-Daniels-Midland Co.; David MacLennan of Cargill Inc.; Marillyn Hewson of Lockheed Martin Corp.; Kathy Warden of Northrop Grumman Corp.; and James Quincey of Coca-Cola Co.
Trump has been eager to end economy-stifling social-distancing measures to curb the outbreak almost as soon as he announced them, though last month he extended Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations until April 30 on the advice of government health experts.
‘At Best Scatter Shot’
Many of those same health officials have cautioned that lifting restrictions on May 1 may be too soon. But Trump’s economic advisers have intensified their efforts to persuade the president that the country should reopen to stave off economic ruin.
“We think that some of the governors will be in really good shape to open up even sooner than” the end up of April, Trump said Tuesday. “Others are going to have to take a longer period of time.”
Even as Trump pressed ahead, Senate Democrats said on Wednesday they will be demanding a broad-based system of testing for the virus as part of any reopening plans.
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and his leadership team said a “Phase Four” of economic stimulus must include a $30 billion plan they’re drafting that would provide testing throughout the nation. That package is expected to be a hefty follow-on package that supplements the $2.2 trillion stimulus that cleared Congress last month.
“The administration is at best scatter shot and at worst chaotic when it comes to testing,” Schumer told reporters on a conference call.
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