Trump’s ‘Opening Our Country Council’ Runs Into Its Own Opening Problems

Trump’s ‘Opening Our Country Council’ Runs Into Its Own Opening Problems

WASHINGTON — Some business leaders had no idea they were included until they heard that their names had been read in the Rose Garden on Tuesday night by President Trump. Some of those who had agreed to help said they received little information on what, exactly, they were signing up for. And others who were willing to connect with the White House could not participate in hastily organized conference calls on Wednesday because of scheduling conflicts and technical difficulties.

In short, the rollout of what the president referred to last week as his “Opening Our Country Council” was as confusing as the process of getting there. Instead of a formal council, what Mr. Trump announced on Tuesday was a watered-down version that included 17 separate industry groups, including hospitality, banking, energy and “thought leaders.” And on Wednesday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers received emails inviting them to join another task force.

The president participated in four calls with those groups during the day at the same time White House officials were playing down their the significance, claiming that the creation of a “task force” was never planned, despite the president’s mention of it last week.

They said that there was no date for an in-person meeting planned, and that the goal was simply to begin, via conference calls, a dialogue about the economy after the pandemic recedes. The only task force that existed, they insisted, was the coronavirus task force led by Vice President Mike Pence.

The confusion was the latest example of the difficulty the administration has encountered in its attempts to enlist support from the private sector to bolster the president’s claim that he has the power to reopen the economy, even as governors have made it clear that they will make those decisions themselves.

Cisco Systems, the networking company, and McDonald’s were among the major employers that learned of their involvement in consulting with the president only when he mentioned their names on Tuesday evening, according to people familiar with the matter.

Pfizer was also blindsided by its inclusion in the group, receiving a heads-up that Mr. Trump might mention the company an hour before the announcement, with no information about how many other companies were involved or what the purpose of the group was.

Richard Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., was also not asked whether he would join the group before his name was announced by Mr. Trump as a participant, according to Carolyn Bobb, the union’s national media manager. But she said Mr. Trumka had planned to join a call with Mr. Trump on Wednesday “to see if it’s a serious effort.”

Some of the offers to be involved came directly from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, according to two people who were briefed on the plans, and at least one came directly from Mr. Trump, one of those people added. But others said they were given no advance warning that their name would be attached to a White House news release, which on Tuesday night described the list of people as the “Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups.”

A White House official said that while the administration did not wait to hear back from all 200 people whose names were announced as part of the effort, it had sent an email notification on Tuesday afternoon to all the people involved alerting them that they had been selected.

Some of them were willing participants, including major Trump donors and even one business partner, Phil Ruffin, a billionaire casino owner who partnered with the president’s company on the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas.Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate who is among the biggest donors to Mr. Trump and Republicans, was also named to the task force.

But the calls were set up on such short notice that some chief executives were unable to join in. For instance, David M. Solomon, the Goldman Sachs chief, was leading his own quarterly earnings call at the same time as the White House call.

The chief executive of Starbucks, Kevin Johnson, had previous commitments to address employees, and another executive from the coffee chain joined the call, according to a person familiar with the matter. Meanwhile, Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase & Company was also unable to join, according to a person familiar with the matter, but one of his deputies spent 15 minutes trying to patch in to the discussion, ultimately without luck.

The pattern of confusion appeared to be repeating itself with members of the House and Senate who were abruptly notified that they had been selected for a congressional task force on reopening the country.

The congressional group had yet to convene, and was only notified of its existence Wednesday afternoon. In emails sent to offices on Capitol Hill, the White House legislative affairs office did not so much invite the lawmakers to participate as inform them of their selection.

The full membership of the group was unclear Wednesday afternoon, but at least three senior lawmakers — Senators Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, and Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia — were prepared to accept. The appointment list appeared to include some committee leaders from both parties, and numbered more than a dozen.

The White House did not specify the group’s exact purpose, and several lawmakers were caught off guard by the invitation, with some Democrats left wondering why they had been selected by a president who had made clear his disdain for them.

“I am emailing to inform you that the president has selected you to serve on a task force comprised of senators and members of the House of Representatives,” the administration wrote in one such email, obtained by The New York Times and confirmed by multiple congressional officials who had received similar notifications.

“The purpose of the task force is to provide counsel to the president on the reopening of America in the wake of Covid-19,” the email continued. “The formal name of this task force has not yet been announced.”

In the first call of the day, Mr. Trump talked Wednesday morning with many of the big-name business leaders he had mentioned the night before, but encountered some resistance to his enthusiasm for reopening the country quickly, even as the executives offered some praise for his administration’s response.

Mr. Trump opened the call by saying that “testing is under control” in the country. But after each executive was given a minute or two to provide his or her overview of what was needed to reopen the economy, there was a wide consensus that more testing was needed before the economy could reopen, according to two people who participated on the call. Among those who made the point that the testing was necessary to track who was infected and who might have immunity before returning employees to work sites was Jeffrey P. Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon.

Another issue of great concern to the executives on the call, one participant said, was the need to address the liability companies could face if employees got sick after returning to work, given the possibility that workers who felt that they were brought back to soon — or were not placed in a safe environment — could sue en masse.

Annie Karni reported from Washington, and David Gelles and Kate Kelly from New York. Nicholas Fandos and Kenneth P. Vogel contributed reporting from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from New York.

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