New Trump panel to explore path to reopening U.S. economy
Some ethics experts and participants in past Trump councils are concerned the president may not be open to diverse viewpoints
WASHINGTON — Every day, a team of public health officials turns up in the White House briefing room to lay out measures being taken to contain the coronavirus pandemic. A different team has begun meeting behind closed doors in the West Wing to tackle another matter paramount to President Donald Trump: how to begin reopening the American economy.
The council, which is not expected to include health officials, could bring to the forefront the push-pull tensions within the White House between economists and public health officials over how quickly to reopen the economy vs. proceeding cautiously to ensure the virus doesn’t spike again.
With the country barrelling toward a likely recession ahead of November’s election, Trump is eager to spur an economic revival, hoping to steady financial markets and restore some of the 16 million jobs already lost due to the pandemic. He originally hoped to have the country stirring again by Easter but now wants at least a partial reopening by the end of the month.
Many medical experts in the government, including Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, have cautioned that easing up on social distancing too soon could lead a new wave of the disease that would require shuttering the economy again, with disastrous results.
As for the new council, Trump said he expected “they will give us some also good advice but no, we want to be very, very safe. At the same time we’ve got to get our country open.”
Some ethics experts and participants in past councils created by Trump voiced concerns that the president may not be open to using the new panel to explore diverse viewpoints and hard truths about the best path forward.
“It doesn’t work if you bring in the hallelujah chorus,” said Thea Lee, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning Washington think-tank. Lee served on a short-lived manufacturing council that Trump established early in his presidency.
Among those expected to be part of the new team: Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and White House economic advisers, past and present, Kevin Hassett and Larry Kudlow. New White House chief of staff Mark Meadows is expected to chair the effort.
It would work separately from the coronavirus task force led by Vice-President Mike Pence, though there could be some overlap of participants.
Some outside business leaders and perhaps governors also may join the group of administration officials who already are informally meeting and holding conference calls with the president.
The new council is expected to act as an internal West Wing counterbalance to health experts who want Trump to go slow in reopening the nation. The president said the new panel would seek counsel from various industries and include committees representing fields like manufacturing, transportation and religious interests.
Arthur Laffer, an economist Trump has praised, acknowledged that the economy was severely damaged but said it was difficult to tell when it should reopen.
“There’s nothing smart about doing it too early,” said Laffer.
The US economy is so vast that the council will need to consider the needs of workers in food services, health care, transportation, construction and other sectors in which a diverse workforce that often makes lower wages will be on the front lines of a re-opened economy.
“You do need a range of opinions and a range of experiences,” said Jay Shambaugh, an economist at George Washington University and director of the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution. “This is one of those cases where the minority report is really important – you need people who aren’t all thinking the same thing.”
The White House said Trump’s decision-making process would be measured and involve consultation with the public health officials.
“The President wants to see this economy open again so people can get back to work, but scientific data will drive the timeline on those decisions because his number one priority is to protect the safety and well-being of the American people,” said deputy press secretary Judd Deere.
Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, served on Trump’s now-defunct manufacturing council. He said the administration used the advisory group in a “self-congratulatory” manner meant to spotlight “a bunch of CEOs talking to the president about something that was important to him.”
There were “a lot serious people on the advisory council,” Paul said, “but I didn’t see it as doing serious work.”