President Donald Trump is looking to the business executives of America to get him out of the coronavirus penalty box.
With the U.S. economy stuck in a deep downturn, Trump is betting on his promotional skills — of corporate executives, small-business owners and American workers — to rescue his standing just six months before the general election. The president is pressing businesses and even schools to reopen as part of his message that the U.S. is digging out of the coronavirus pandemic and getting back to work, despite persistent doubts from state officials and business leaders about whether adequate testing and contact-tracing infrastructure is in place.
The move to more economy-focused events and messaging at the White House comes after weeks of singular attention on the president as the front man for the pandemic response.
Boxed in by the administration’s own projections and promises, Trump and his aides initially sought to deflect some of the responsibility for a lagging response onto career officials inside his health agencies. Trump then shifted to putting the onus on governors to sort out the response and find the resources they needed. Now, the White House is seeking to share the spotlight with CEOs and business leaders, promoting some companies — and not just the administration — to fight a virus and find treatments while boosting others willing to lead the way for America to get back to work.
“People are angry about not being able to make a living for a month and a half,” said a Republican close to the White House who has discussed the administration’s strategy with top executives. “There is a lot of pent-up anger about being bullied into not doing what you want to do. Bringing businesses to the White House is a good strategy. People really are concerned about their economic future and it outweighs the safety at this point.”
Several of Trump’s closest advisers and aides have told him reviving the economy is a far better message for him than delivering health care news.
It’s a Lysol-soaked pivot, trying to wash away the reputational stain from the president musing openly last week about treating coronavirus by injecting disinfectants and UV rays to kill COVID-19. Trump was widely ridiculed by medical experts and everyday Americans alike.
Several of Trump’s closest advisers and aides have told him reviving the economy is a far better message for him than delivering health care news or half-baked prescriptions from the White House podium. Talking about the economy also dovetails with his own background and his new reelection strategy as a wartime president.
In addition to attacking China for introducing COVID-19 to the world, Trump’s political advisers want to position him as the candidate who oversaw a booming economy, stock market and low unemployment until the pandemic hit. Now they intend to argue in the coming weeks that he — and he alone — is the one who can resurrect the economy again, just as the first GDP data arrives Wednesday marking the end of a decade-long economic expansion that Trump inherited.
“I built the greatest economy. With all of the people that helped me and all of the people in this country, we built the greatest economy the world has ever seen,” Trump said at the White House this week. “And we’re going to do it again. And it’s not going to be that long. OK?”
The White House has previously tried to include businesses in the response by compiling various councils of business and faith leaders — an exercise that turned into a series of power plays within the West Wing and led to the formation of several committees of hundreds of allies.
Now, the White House is trying to go beyond just a messaging exercise to transfer some of the weight of the recovery into businesses, both big and small.
In the coming days, administration officials intend to highlight various blueprints that businesses have put forward to reopen warehouses and offices, said a second Republican close to the White House — an effort to show solidarity in moving toward a reopening of the economy.
And the administration does not just want to highlight the work of tech companies, or huge corporations. Aides want to showcase relatable companies including small businesses, as Trump did Tuesday in the East Room of the White House.
The White House’s Office of Public Liaison, senior adviser Jared Kushner and counselor to the president, Hope Hicks, have overseen the outreach and invitation to the executives and businesses. This week, representatives from the hotel, restaurant and automobile industries are expected to visit the White House, said a White House official.
“In the coming days and weeks, you’ll see the president spotlight small businesses that have been impacted, large businesses that have laid out responsible plans for reopening safely, and governors who have laid out plans for reopen,” said a second White House official. “Millions of Americans are unemployed and facing uncertainty and need to hear an economic message of hope from the White House. They also need to hear that when we reopen, they can safely go back into society. That’s our goal.”
The president may start to travel within the next week to make the case in person about the safe reopening of the economy, the official added.
Companies have told the White House they do not want to be held liable if they reopen offices or plants and employees fall ill with COVID-19. As a result, White House aides are pressing for some type of liability protection for companies included in the next coronavirus rescue package.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called such a provision a priority “for the brave people who have been manning the front lines during this and the brave people who will be opening their businesses fearful that they will be sued.”
“The next pandemic coming will be the lawsuit pandemic in the wake of this one. So, we need to prevent that now when we have the opportunity to do it,” McConnell told POLITICO in an interview.
The White House is increasingly looking to CEOs and business leaders to help validate its decision to push for a reopening of the economy and response to the crisis from outside the government.
A preview of the strategy was on display Monday evening in the Rose Garden when Trump, surrounded by executives from CVS, Walgreens and Walmart, gave upbeat assessments about the state of testing in the U.S. and the way the private sector was standing up additional sites and producing swabs and personal protective equipment for health care workers.
For businesses, the event provided an unfiltered advertisement on national TV and the chance to appear patriotic in the middle of a national crisis. For the White House, the photo op marked an effort to change the narrative from the president’s disinfectant-and-UV rays briefing days earlier.
“White House aides remember in March when they brought in the CVS and Walmart executives to talk about testing,” said a conservative lobbyist. “That was seen as a big turning-point moment for the administration’s optics. They are trying to recreate those visuals, given how badly and off-the-rails things went in the last four or five days.”
After watching polls in swing states, where Trump’s approval rating is falling in key areas and among important demographics, Trump’s political advisers want him to move off of delivering any health messages to a more hopeful economic one.
Trump has easily adapted, talking in the Oval Office on Tuesday about the state of the economy by the end of 2020. “I think the fourth quarter’s going to be really strong and I think next year’s going to be a tremendous year,” Trump said as he sat next to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to discuss how the state will be reopening its economy.