(CNN)In the first phone call convened between President Donald Trump and some members of his newly formed business council, industry leaders reiterated to the President what public health experts and governors have been telling him for weeks: that there would need to be guarantees of ramped-up coronavirus testing before people return to work, according to one person briefed on the discussions.
The call, one of a series with various sectors on Wednesday, was the first task force teleconference aimed at devising a strategy for reopening the country. The call lasted for about an hour and had dozens of participants from the banking, food, hospitality and retail sectors, many of whom lauded the President and his administration for their efforts to combat coronavirus and jump-start the economy, this person said.
Many of Trump’s conservative allies have encouraged him to listen to advice from business leaders, hoping their recommendations on reopening parts of the country will counterbalance the advice of public health experts such as Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, who convinced Trump to extend social distancing guidelines by another month at the start of April.
Those allies are convinced that internal discussions on the coronavirus task force, and the information it provides the President, are overly weighted toward models and worst-case public health scenarios. They had hoped another panel inside the White House focused on the economic effects of the pandemic might lend equilibrium.
Some of Trump’s advisers also hoped having the imprimatur of American industry on White House decision-making might lend credibility — and cover — to whatever decision Trump announces on how and when to recommend reopening certain portions of the country, which some fear could lead to new outbreaks if rushed out too quickly.
But uncertainty about the new task force prevailed from nearly the moment Trump said he was considering it on April 5.
“Thinking about it. Getting a group of people,” Trump said. “And we have to open our country.”
It began, like so much in the Trump era, on Twitter.
“I think we need a 2nd task force assembled at direction of POTUS to look ahead to reopening of the economy,” wrote Dana Perino, the Fox News host and press secretary to President George W. Bush, two Saturdays ago.
“Good idea Dana!” Trump replied.
And so began a process that ended in a twilight Rose Garden press conference on Tuesday with Trump rattling off names of top American executives he said would advise him on reopening the country. Some later said they had no idea they’d been included. Many indicated confusion on what, specifically, they were being tapped to do.
The formation of Trump’s “Opening the Country Council” embodied the chaotic and factionalized approach that has marked much of the administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Intent on reviving a stalled economy and mindful of his reelection prospects, Trump has repeatedly sought the advice of America’s industry titans as he wages war on an “invisible enemy.” But formalizing his outreach proved messy and the results of the new effort remain uncertain.
Many of Trump’s aides took his interest in a task force to mean a panel comprised mostly of administration officials, including members of the Cabinet and economy-focused White House staff. To many it appeared that Mark Meadows, the new chief of staff, would lead the effort. And some aides indicated it was likely that Ivanka Trump, who has focused on small business, and Jared Kushner, who leads his own task force on supplies, would be involved.
But Trump also envisioned some of America’s most prominent industry titans participating, picturing a panel comprised of “great business leaders, great doctors” to help map out how the country might emerge from the coronavirus shutdown.
It was never clear internally how the new panel would interface with the existing White House coronavirus task force, which is led by Vice President Mike Pence and includes a number of the President’s economic advisers.
Trump seemed mindful of distinguishing the two bodies, telling reporters last week he was naming the new panel the “Opening the Country Council” to avoid confusion with “Mike’s task force.”
But in practice, it remains the coronavirus task force that is weighing new recommendations on easing social distancing guidelines and returning to work, not the panel of business leaders Trump listed on Tuesday.