With just under 24 hours to go before President Donald Trump officially announces his “opening our country council,” no corporate leaders have yet lent their names to the business task force — and it remains unknown which, if any, executives are keen to be formally associated with a team handling such a tricky transition, senior business executives told NBC News.
“We’re going to boom,” Trump said at a news briefing Monday night. “It’s going to go quickly. Our people want to get back to work, and I think there’s pent-up demand. We want to be very, very safe, but on the other hand we want to get our country back.”
The group’s official formation, announced Friday at a White House coronavirus task force news briefing, provisionally includes people Trump described as economic experts, medical professionals, elected leaders and members of the business community. The smaller group will meet less often than the larger one headed by Vice President Mike Pence, according to a senior administration official.
“I’m going to surround myself with the greatest minds,” Trump said Friday. “We’re going to make a decision.”
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However, few business leaders seem to want the media scrutiny of their own company — and any government assistance from which they may be benefiting. The $2 trillion coronavirus relief package provides $500 billion in aid for corporations, such as airline companies, that have been hurt by the outbreak.
Other executives are leery of being involved in a panel that could become as controversial as Trump’s earlier forays, such as the “Strategic and Policy Forum” and the “American Manufacturing Council.” Formed early on in Trump’s presidency, the business focus groups were designed to have a direct line to advise the president on a range of important business matters. However, the councils were disbanded after just a few months as a rash of CEOs resigned in the wake of Trump’s response to a deadly white nationalist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The “opening our country council,” to be led by White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, includes Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Russ Vought, the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, according to an administration official.
Tomas Philipson, acting chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, and White House advisers Larry Kudlow, Peter Navarro, Chris Liddell, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are also expected to be part of the initial group.
“Trump is very keen to get the economy restarted since he can see the enormous damage that the closure is doing to the economy and he is concerned about having to run an election campaign with an economy in deep trouble,” said economist Desmond Lachman, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
“You can expect that the business types will want an early reopening, but the medical experts will advise against,” Lachman said, weighing “the trade-off between the nation’s health and the economy.”
The president has been criticized for having downplayed the initial threat of the coronavirus and having been slow to recommend strict social distancing measures, choosing instead to focus on controlling the message and protecting economic gains ahead of his re-election bid.
He has bristled at the strict measures his administration has recommended and has been eager to get the economy back on sound footing, at one point predicting that the country would reopen by Easter. The current guidelines are set to extend through the end of April.
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Trump and his reopening committee will need to weigh whether to further extend social distancing or whether to encourage some Americans to go back to work.
“I’m going to have to make a decision, and I … hope to God that it’s the right decision,” Trump said Friday. “It’s the biggest decision I’ve ever had to make.”
When asked what metrics he would base the decision on, Trump pointed at his forehead and said: “The metrics right here. That’s my metrics.”
Economic experts question whether it would justify the health risk.
“If the lockdown is lifted and the virus will still be prevalent, will people really go back to restaurants, the malls and sports events as they did before, and will they really start traveling as they did before?” Lachman asked.