Ahead of economic announcement, White House scrambled to assemble list of names

The president announced a long list of business leaders to help lead an economic revival, but they were among the last to know.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump walks back to the podium after listening to Dr. Tomislav Mihaljevic, president and CEO of the Cleveland Clinic, right, and Warner Thomas, president and CEO of Ochsner Health, speak during a briefing about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House on Tuesday, April 14, 2020.Alex Brandon / AP

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By Stephanie Ruhle, Monica Alba, Peter Alexander and Dylan Byers

One after another, President Donald Trump read names from an exhaustive list as he stood in the Rose Garden, touting the industry titans who would be part of a new advisory group to lead the country's economic revival — Mary Barra of General Motors, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Marc Benioff of Salesforce among them.

While happy to participate, the vast majority of those on the list were not informed that they would be named by the president and not told in advance what their roles might be. Some others, like Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, said they were told about the group by phone on Tuesday, just hours before the president spoke.

And some emails simply went astray, with White House officials inviting former CEOs no longer in charge, in what appears to have been a last-minute effort to cobble together an announcement for Trump's daily news conference.

The administration declined to immediately provide specifics on how the economic board came together and whether, or how, they will meet going forward. Asked about the mandate for the group, a White House official who wouldn't speak for the record, said that "this is the beginning stages of an ongoing dialogue with the best and brightest of the private sector as we work to recover from this pandemic economically."

On Wednesday, the White House began calls with many of those named by Trump on Tuesday, including one call with executives from the tech, telecommunications and transportation industries. Three sources familiar with that call said the participating executives, about 50 in total, were not informed that their names would be included in any formal White House group or council.

CEOs Jamie Dimon of JP MorganChase, David Solomon of Goldman Sachs and Brian Moynihan of Bank of America speak regularly with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and are in frequent contact with the administration. None, however, were invited to be part of any official COVID Economic Task Force or what Trump dubbed his Great American Economic Revival.

When asked Monday about potential participants, Mnuchin said that "they haven't been invited yet" and that aides had only "reviewed the names with the president" that day "for him to sign off on."

What was originally envisioned as a smaller economic advisory board had suddenly morphed into a giant list — more than 200 names long — of business leaders and top executives from the financial, labor, energy, health care, defense, hospitality, retail, real estate, technology and sports sectors.

Throughout the day and even after the news conference Tuesday, the White House invited many of those named by Trump to participate in a series of conference calls on Wednesday, but outreach to secure any firm involvement was limited beyond that.

In a copy of an email obtained by NBC News, the White House's communication to the industry leaders simply read: "President Trump is seeking your insights regarding our Nation's economic recovery. As an industry leader and a vital part of our past and future success, your contributions are greatly valued by the President, who will lead what will undoubtedly be an unprecedented economic resurgence."

Barra, GM's CEO, said in an interview with NBC News on Tuesday, before the groups were officially announced, that she hadn't been "asked to do anything" but would do so if asked. A few hours later, Barra's name was included in the White House's official list.

Labor union leaders were also among those listed by Trump, including AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Teamsters' chief James Hoffa. Neither Trumka nor Hoffa were asked before they were announced as members of the council, according to labor sources.

Carolyn Bobb, spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO, said in an email that it was a surprise to the union but that Trumka would be on Wednesday's call to "see if it's a serious effort."

To add to the haphazard nature of the announcement, the list even included a former CEO of Best Buy who was replaced in June 2019. The current CEO, Corie Barry, will participate instead. Other companies were listed twice. Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone, who was named, no longer serves on the board.

Moynihan did participate in Wednesday's White House call; Dimon and Solomon did not.

Solomon, who spoke on the Goldman Sachs earnings call, addressed reopening the country: "We have to rebuild confidence in people's security and safety around the virus. We can all have economic forecasts, and we can all talk about the economic consequence of this, but unless people feel safe and secure and confident around the virus, the economic impact will continue in some way, shape or form. That is a very, very hard thing to predict. So I've tried to encourage companies that we've talked to, and individuals for that matter, to hope for the better but plan for the worse."

And on JP Morgan's earnings call Wednesday, Dimon said the country could reopen some time over the summer, and perhaps not until August, in conjunction with local governments and the CDC.

As explained by the president last week, the "opening our country" council was supposed to be an unrelated offshoot of the original coronavirus task force, which has been led by Vice President Mike Pence for weeks now.

The actual outcome does not appear to be a council at all, though one source close to the decision-making acknowledged it could eventually transform into a smaller group, as originally planned. There is no expectation, however, that this extensive list of people will ever meet in person — or even remotely as coronavirus continues to affect travel decisions — given the size of what one source referred to as a "glorified" advisory board.

On Friday, when asked if the "council" would have lawmakers from both parties, Trump said: "Bipartisan? I didn't even ask. I mean, honestly, I think it's bipartisan. The one thing I didn't ask, 'Are you a Republican or a Democrat?' Hard to believe, but I didn't ask. So it would be." One senior official said lawmakers may be consulted in coming days.

Senior administration officials told NBC News last week that newly appointed chief of staff Mark Meadows would be spearheading the project but it's unclear exactly who is chairing the effort beyond the president himself.

Adding to the confusion: Officials first indicated that presidential advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump would both serve on the council, which the president later reversed. It's unknown which members of the administration, if any, will be named to the group.

Hans Nichols and Jonathan Allen contributed.