Coronavirus: Conservative groups push White House to reopen economy

Trump has said that in the next few days he would give clearer signals about when he will push businesses to reopen

Jeff Stein,Robert Costa
Tuesday 14 April 2020 10:53 BST
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Senior White House officials briefed President Donald Trump on Monday about his looming decision regarding how to eventually jump-start the economy, presenting him with a list of 100 business executives who could serve on 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 leading conservative advocacy groups plan to announce a joint coalition to demand the reopening of the US 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 that 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-person business list would be divided into groups based on 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 organisation; and Lisa Nelson, chief executive of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative organisation with ties to the Koch Brothers, according to the three people, granted anonymity to reveal details of an effort that had not been publicly revealed.

Trump is being pressured to reopen businesses, such as Brookfield Place mall in lower Manhattan, to kickstart the US economy
Trump is being pressured to reopen businesses, such as Brookfield Place mall in lower Manhattan, to kickstart the US economy (Getty)

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 years,” veteran tea-party organiser 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.

The conservative mobilisation 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.

Donald Trump speaks at a White House briefing on the coronavirus pandemic (AFP)
Donald Trump speaks at a White House briefing on the coronavirus pandemic (AFP) (AFP via Getty Images)

“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 lock-down 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.”

Other conservatives have proposed sidelining the two leading public health experts in the administration, Anthony 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 said.

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!”

The decline in used and new car purchases could see the US and global industry lose a significant amount of money
The decline in used and new car purchases could see the US and global industry lose a significant amount of money (Getty)

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.

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 harms’ way. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has issued federal guidance urging social distancing and working from home, but those guidelines are set to expire on 30 April.

“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 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,” Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Republican and longtime tea-party activist, said. “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.”

The Washington Post

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