President Trump is leaning on U.S. business chiefs to bolster his response to the coronavirus pandemic, testing his volatile relationship with the private sector at a dire moment.
As the Trump administration struggles to fill shortages of crucial medical equipment and expedite coronavirus testing, the president has flexed the power of his office and pulpit to reward corporations that step in to fill the void — and punish those who Trump believes haven’t.
At a Monday briefing in the Rose Garden, Trump included leaders from companies including MyPillow, Jockey International, Honeywell, Procter and Gamble, and United Technologies, which he commended for producing or donating equipment to address the pandemic.
He invited several to speak at the podium, including Mike Lindell, the founder of MyPillow and a Trump donor, who entered into an aside about the need for Americans to focus on the Bible.
Trump also touted a new five-minute coronavirus test produced by Abbott Laboratories and cheered Roche Industries for its work on testing amid the outbreak.
While firms and CEOs enjoy a Rose Garden open mic, others have come under attack from the president.
Trump last week invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) to force General Motors to produce ventilators after an initial offer from the company fell apart. The president, who has long feuded with GM over the closure of an Ohio assembly plant, charged White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, his chief advocate for automobile tariffs, with overseeing the automaker.
“Maybe they’ll change their tune, but we didn’t want to play games with them,” Trump said Friday about GM.
Trump’s marshaling of corporate leaders may be the greatest test of the dealmaker approach to the presidency he pitched in 2016 with just seven months until the president faces voters again.
A former White House official described it as a smart strategy, saying that it “adds to the sense stuff is getting done.” The person also dismissed criticism of Lindell’s remarks as partisan, noting that MyPillow had dedicated its factories to producing masks amid the coronavirus outbreak.
One former Trump adviser acknowledged the optics of giving large corporations what amounted to free advertising from behind the presidential seal could be problematic, but argued having so much corporate muscle behind the coronavirus response was more significant.
“If it serves as motivation and appreciation for folks pitching in with the effort, then by all means keep it up,” the person said.
Company executives have made appearances at White House briefings and participated in teleconferences and meetings with administration officials on a number of occasions as the White House charts a path forward to address the coronavirus, which has now sickened more than 180,000 people in America and battered the U.S. economy.
The president and his team have engaged with leaders of fast-food chains, grocery stores, airlines, commercial laboratories, retail giants, banks and network service providers over the past several weeks.
Trump has sought to highlight the contacts as he seeks to assure the American public of countrywide preparedness to not only stamp out the virus but also provide goods and services to those who need them.
At a March 13 Rose Garden ceremony where he declared the coronavirus a national emergency, Trump was flanked by leaders of major retailers including Target and Walmart as well as those from the labs Quest Diagnostics and Roche. Trump also brandished plans to implement “drive-thru” testing in areas of the country as his administration faced scrutiny over a dearth in coronavirus tests.
“Some of these folks we know, they’re celebrities in their own right, they’re the biggest business people, the greatest retailers anywhere in the world,” Trump told a crowd of journalists, inviting Walmart CEO Doug McMillon to speak about how his organization agreed to make portions of store parking lots available to support the new testing sites.
At a press conference Sunday evening, Trump introduced leaders of American pharmaceutical and medical supply distributors, including UPS and FedEx, as he highlighted joint efforts to keep the country’s medical supply chain and delivery system running at “top speed.”
Current and former administration officials cited senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, as a key driver behind mobilizing the private sector. But Kushner lacks any medical background and has limited involvement with the coronavirus task force, irking some in the administration.
Plenty of Trump’s predecessors have called on corporate leaders to help guide the U.S. out of a variety of crises. Former President Obama convened a panel of more than two dozen U.S. chief executives and labor leaders to advise his efforts to stimulate the economy after the Great Recession. Former President Kennedy tapped Robert McNamara, the president of Ford Motor Co., to be his secretary of Defense and calculate a swift path out of the war in Vietnam he inherited when taking office in 1961.
But Trump has also shown a unique willingness to praise and criticize corporations over whether their operations align with his political and policy goals.
Trump began his presidency sparring with Boeing even before he was sworn in, slamming the aircraft maker for the reported cost of a new Air Force One. The company won Trump’s praise last week after offering to deploy cargo planes to ship medical supplies
Other corporations struggled to win over the president. Trump’s decision to invoke his wartime economic authority on GM came a year after the company gained the president’s ire by closing an auto assembly plant in Ohio.
While lawmakers in both parties rebuked GM, the closure of a plan in Lordstown, Ohio, enraged Trump and undercut his pledge to restore auto manufacturing in a state crucial to his political coalition.
Trump pressured both GM and Ford to ramp up ventilator production, but only subjected GM to the DPA, forcing the company to take direct orders from the White House.
Trump mentioned the closure of the Lordstown plant when announcing his decision to apply the DPA to GM, raising questions about the role a political grudge played in the president’s decision.
“I was extremely unhappy with Lordstown, Ohio, where they left Lordstown, Ohio, in the middle of an auto boom,” Trump said Friday. “Frankly, I think that would be a good place to build the ventilators, but we’ll see. We’ll see how that all works out.”
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