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White House aides, outside groups launch effort to reopen economy, but Mnuchin says decision poses risks

White House reviews list of 100 business executives who could advise Trump on decision, which president says he will make soon

President Trump claimed on April 13 that he has the final say in reopening states amid the coronavirus pandemic. Some states’ governors disagree. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Senior White House officials briefed President Trump on Monday about his looming decision regarding how to eventually jump-start the economy, presenting him with a list of 100 business executives that could serve in an advisory panel.

In a sign of how fluid things remain, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said these executives have not yet been formally notified that they could serve in an advisory role.

The comments, made at a White House briefing, came as multiple leading conservative advocacy groups plan to announce a joint coalition to demand the reopening of the U.S. economy despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, pushing for government authorities to loosen restrictions against the warnings of leading public health experts, according to three people with knowledge of the coming announcement.

Trump said in the next few days he would give clearer signals about when he will push businesses to reopen, though there remains widespread confusion about how he could overrule directives given by various governors. He said these will come in the form of “guidelines and recommendations," which suggests that it could leave ample discretion with governors and mayors.

“The president of the United States has the authority to do what the president has the authority to do, which is very powerful,” he said.

He said “If some states refuse to open, I’d like to see that person run for election.”

There are now numerous groups weighing in with different views about what Trump should do. For example, Mnuchin said the 100 business executives would be separated into different groups based on their industry. The conservative groups, meanwhile, are pushing for the White House and GOP lawmakers to push back against health professionals who have urged more caution.

The outside effort from conservative groups is expected to be led by Stephen Moore, a conservative at the Heritage Foundation who is close with White House economic officials; Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots; Adam Brandon, president of FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy organization; and Lisa Nelson, chief executive of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative organization with ties to the Koch brothers, according to the three people, who were granted anonymity to reveal details of an effort that had not been publicly revealed.

“There’s economic risks in both directions,” Mnuchin said, based on what Trump ultimately decides to do. A reporter asked Trump if he would order the economy to reopen by May 1, and Trump said he would give an answer to that question soon.

Mnuchin said his advice to the president was that the economy should reopen “as soon as it’s ready to open and based upon the medical professionals.”

Part of the impetus for the conservative group effort is political. Many conservatives, who had long counted on a roaring economy to lift the GOP in November, are increasingly uneasy about the party’s chances if businesses remain shuttered.

“Obviously, the sooner we get the economy going and back up, the better it’s going to be for conservatives and Republicans in this election year,” veteran tea-party organizer Richard Viguerie said in an interview. “A lot of Republicans and conservatives feel there might be an overreaction to all of this. We’re all anxious to get back. Conservatives feel the government has overreacted, and it’s got to end.”

Multiple other leading conservative groups are expected to join the effort. The coalition started lobbying Republican lawmakers last week and also is working to influence the White House’s thinking.

Trump administration pushing to reopen much of the U.S. next month

The conservative mobilization to reopen the economy comes at a pivotal moment in the nation’s fight against the pandemic, as the president and senior administration officials publicly suggest economic life could be largely returned to normal next month. Their push has faced resistance from public health experts, who warn of potentially disastrous consequences should Americans resume daily routines without a clear national plan for doing so safely, creating an enormous power struggle within the Trump administration.

These conservatives warn the sustained economic downturn could do more damage to Americans by destroying their livelihoods, and that the economy can be reopened safely. Numerous other economists and public health experts have pushed back against that assumption.

“There’s a massive movement on the right now, growing exponentially. In the next two weeks, you’ll see protests in the streets of conservatives; you’ll see a big pushback against the lockdown in some states. People are at the boiling point,” said Moore, who declined to comment on the group. “If this were Hillary Clinton doing these things, you already would have riots in the streets.”

White House denies Trump is considering firing Fauci despite his retweet of a hashtag calling for his ouster

Other conservatives have proposed sidelining the two leading public health experts in the administration, Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Deborah Birx, coronavirus response director. Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), a conservative lawmaker, tweeted Monday that Fauci and Birx “should no longer be the primary voices at the table."

"We need to open our economy TODAY to prevent a great depression,” Biggs added.

It’s unclear how much authority Trump himself has over restarting the economy, given that the stay-at-home orders and other restrictions are controlled by the nation’s governors. On Monday, though, Trump argued that the decision to reopen the economy would largely be his and not rely on what governors decide to do.

“For the purpose of creating conflict and confusion, some in the Fake News Media are saying that it is the Governors decision to open up the states, not that of the President of the United States & the Federal Government. Let it be fully understood that this is incorrect,” he tweeted. “It is the decision of the President, and for many good reasons. With that being said, the Administration and I are working closely with the Governors, and this will continue. A decision by me, in conjunction with the Governors and input from others, will be made shortly!”

Each state is looking at different schedules in metrics as leaders decide how to proceed. While some governors from both parties have shown signs they will not follow directives from the White House, Trump does have substantial sway over Republican lawmakers, and if he gave the green light to relax restrictions numerous Republican governors could face political pressure to do so.

I spent six days on a ventilator with covid-19. It saved me, but my life is not the same.

People involved in the conservative coalition, which is still in the process of being formed, spent last week lobbying Republican staff and lawmakers in both the House and Senate, two people said.

“The goal is to urge the White House to press and press hard to get the economy up and running again,” said one person involved with the coalition’s effort. “Members are very receptive.”

Public health experts and some Republican lawmakers have warned restarting the economy prematurely could put millions of Americans in harm’s way. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued federal guidance urging social distancing and working from home, but those guidelines are set to expire on April 30.

“The real fear is that you do it too quickly and you create a spike in the disease, which is likely to come back in the fall,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said earlier this month. “It has to be a science-based assessment, and I don’t see a mass reopening of the economy coming anytime soon.”

But this view isn’t widely shared among all conservatives.

In ruby red states, “People are ready to get back to work,” said Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R), a longtime tea-party activist. “There is some despair. People have a lot more time on their hands with the anxiety and the joblessness. The process for unemployment has become cumbersome and slow and getting more upset by the day.”

Some Trump allies and friends said Trump is deeply influenced by his base and tracks where its various blocs stand on this issue, be it outside groups or TV stars.

“He’s watching the Fox shows, he’s reading the papers, he’s taking in all the information and digesting it,” a White House official said, requesting anonymity to speak candidly. “It’s not about the tea party this, or the conservatives said this. It’s about all of the incoming,” in terms of how he makes his decisions.

Chris Ruddy, CEO of the conservative media company Newsmax and Trump’s friend, said, “I don’t think in this moment he’d play to his base for the sake of his base. He’s a pragmatic, practical guy and wants a way to fix it. If they’re helping him get that, with partial rollouts of reopens, he’ll listen, whether it’s the old tea party coalition or someone else.”

Ruddy added, “He is the kind of person who looks at states like Arkansas and wonders why, if they don’t have many cases, why they need to be shut down.”