Business leaders tell Trump on conference call: What the economy needs to reopen is much more coronavirus testing

I mentioned this last night but there are so many news reports this morning about how the call went that it’s worth devoting a separate thread to it.

The key point is that this was supposed to be a PR opportunity for the White House, specifically for Trump’s plan to reopen parts of the country on May 1 come hell or high water. A few days ago word leaked that his new “economy task force” would be composed of loyal aides and family members like Mark Meadows, Larry Kudlow, and Javanka. But then it seemed to shift, with Trump announcing on Tuesday night that all sorts of business leaders would be participating in the new “council” to provide input on how to reopen the economy. That was smart. A round of conference calls between the president and participants was scheduled for yesterday. But the question remained: Would the council really provide input or would it be a political fig leaf Trump will use to try to justify a decision he’s already reached? Was this a deliberative body, in other words, or a PR gimmick?

Sounds like it’s a PR gimmick. For one thing, every account of the calls that were held notes that some members of the “council” had no idea they were invited to participate until they heard Trump announce publicly on Tuesday night that they were on the team. Imagine being a CEO who’s wary of being linked to the federal government’s shambolic coronavirus response and turning on the TV to find you’ve been drafted, that you’re now partially on the hook for whatever Trump ends up deciding to do. “We got a note about a conference call, like you’d get an invite to a Zoom thing, a few lines in an email, and that was it,” a lobbyist for one corporation told WaPo. “Then our CEO heard his name in the Rose Garden? What the [expletive]?” Members of Congress apparently were also surprised to be informed — not invited — that they would be participating in a new White House congressional task force for reopening the economy.

None of that makes sense if the goal is to find people willing and able to provide meaningful input on economic next steps. But it makes lots of sense if the goal is to simply be able to say later “I consulted with business before doing what I was going to do all along.” One exec who dialed into a call told Politico the call was a “sh*t show” that amounted to nothing substantive.

I suspect Trump thought business leaders, of all people, would go along with him in demanding that the economy open immediately, whatever the state of the outbreak might be. Surely if there’s any segment of American life that can be trusted to prioritize economic vitality over public health, it’s those who oversee enterprise. That’s where the PR opportunity went wrong, though. The message he got from them was that economic vitality won’t return unless and until the public health crisis is addressed first. What they understand, and what Trump often seems not to, is that consumer demand won’t return to normal once businesses open their doors. The longer it takes for the feds to boost risk management via increased testing, the more skittish Americans will be about resuming old consumer habits and the more sluggish the recovery will be.

Beyond the haphazard nature of the call, senior bankers are getting increasingly frustrated with Trump’s approach to the crisis. They say pressure tactics to reopen the economy as fast as possible make no sense if the virus isn’t fully under control and consumers and businesses don’t feel safe to resume anything close to normal activities.

“I really don’t understand how they are communicating on this,” one CEO told POLITICO on condition that neither they nor their firm be named for fear of angering the White House. “He’s got to stop talking about turning the economy back on and start talking about making people feel safe, things that are happening around testing and the health care system. That’s the only way you will really get the economy reopened over a period of time.”

[T]he preferred approach [among business leaders] is take the big hits now, get the virus in check, and restore people’s sense of safety while providing them with as much financial support as possible. Only then can the economy truly start to crawl back toward anything resembling normal.

Among those pressing the president on expanded testing was Jeff Bezos. But apparently it was clear enough that Trump’s going to press ahead whether testing is ready or not.

“Trump made it very clear he was ready to go on May 1,” a person who was on one of the afternoon calls said. The person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private call, added that Trump seemed to bask in the praise from CEOs, who repeatedly opened their comments with compliments for the president…

On one of the morning calls, the point most emphasized by the chief executives was the need for massive testing, which they said would be necessary to create the psychological circumstances for the nation to feel comfortable returning to offices, restaurants and recreation, according to a person familiar with the call.

The president — who acted as the emcee of the call — expressed his personal view that the economy will snap back quickly as soon as the country begins to reopen, citing what he described as pent-up demand. But some on the call were skeptical of such a robust economic reboot, predicting it may be steady, but slower.

I don’t think even Larry Kudlow and Peter Navarro are predicting a V-shaped recovery in which demand “snaps back” once the stay-at-home orders are lifted. If the president believes it, he’s even more disconnected from reality than I thought. But he’s probably also looking abroad at the fact that some European economies are beginning to reopen and wondering why we shouldn’t keep pace:

Germany’s population is a quarter the size of ours. We’d need 2.6 million tests per week to match their testing capacity. Last week we managed about a million, with some regions of the U.S. still restricting testing to people who meet particular criteria because there’s just not enough capacity to test everyone who needs it. Specifically, there aren’t enough testing implements: “Many of them say the biggest challenge is getting not the diagnostic tests themselves but the supplies to process them, including chemical reagents, swabs and pipettes. Manufacturers are facing a huge global demand as every country fights the pandemic, with many attempting the widest-scale testing they have ever undertaken.”

Many Americans might be willing to overlook that and get back to shopping once business reopens if the hard data showed that we’re moving past the first wave of the epidemic. New York, at least, seems to have flattened its curve locally. But daily deaths from COVID-19 across the entire U.S. reached a new high yesterday. The previous high was one day earlier. The IHME model projected that the U.S. would hit its peak three days ago, which means we’re now doing worse than expected in managing the crisis. The modelers have since increased their projections of how many Americans will die before August by nearly 10,000, from around 60,000 a week ago to almost 69,000 today. That’s the public-health backdrop for Trump insisting that he thinks we’re now ready to reopen.

I wonder what the conscripts in his new “reopen the country” council will do if he plows ahead against their advice and calls for reopening on May 1 despite the testing shortfall. On the one hand, no CEO wants to make an enemy of the president, especially a vindictive president. On the other hand, there’s strength in numbers — and thanks to the White House’s rash decision to involve them in a council without inviting them first, they now have a public platform as official presidential advisors to challenge him. They could issue a joint statement politely expressing their belief that more tests are needed to ensure that any reopening will be durable. That’ll put pressure on him to actually address the problem instead of waving it off with declarations that we have the greatest testing regime in history or whatever.