As the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus climbed toward 3,000, President Donald Trump touted corporate America's role in producing medical equipment at an infomercial-like White House briefing Monday.
Trump invited a lineup of CEOs to applaud him and advertise their companies from a podium bearing the presidential seal in the Rose Garden. It wasn't until they were done congratulating one another that the victims of COVID-19, and the people fighting it on the front lines, became a focus of Monday's daily White House briefing.
Pillow company founder Michael Lindell, who has donated more than $200,000 to Trump's campaigns and associated committees, praised the president for bringing God back in to the public square. Executives from an underwear manufacturer and a defense contractor detailed how their operations are being pointed toward producing medical equipment in accordance with Trump's wishes.
Trump's love of CEOs, and his willingness to use official White House briefings to praise corporate leaders and political allies, is nothing new — even in the midst of the current crisis. But Monday's showcase, which represents the heart of the president's daily communication to the public on efforts to combat the coronavirus, signaled a massive escalation of his message that he and his friends in the private sector will save America out of the goodness of their hearts.
And it comes when Trump's critics are questioning how much money taxpayers have been asked to pump into companies that paid CEOs big salaries and bought back their own stock while racking up debt.
The CEOs at the White House were quick to portray themselves as happy to help.
"We don't need the Defense Production Act to get us to act," Greg Hayes, chief executive of the defense contractor United Technologies, in what appeared to be a rebuttal to Trump critics like former Vice President Joe Biden, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, who have pressed the president to use his powers to force companies to make goods and coordinate their distribution to states.
In highlighting the companies, Trump was emphasizing his administration's efforts to bring resources to bear in what he has termed a "war" against the pandemic while giving far less attention to a human toll that top administration scientists have said will likely amount to 100,000 to 200,000 deaths in a best-case scenario.
Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said Lindell's conversion of manufacturing capabilities was an act of patriotism.
"[H]is company will be making 50,000 masks a day by the end of the week," Murtaugh wrote on Twitter. "Because he loves this country and wants to help."
Once the executives were done talking, Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, turned to the painful impact on the American public.
"I want to convey my deepest sympathies to those who have lost loved ones to the coronavirus," Verma said. "We're all thinking of you."
She also thanked the "foot soldiers in this war" — the medical personnel who are treating victims — saying, "Your country is grateful."
In opening remarks, Trump said more than 1 million coronavirus tests had been administered in the U.S., and he ticked off a list of shipment destinations for 1,000 more ventilators that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is sending to states: 400 to Michigan, 300 to New Jersey, 150 each to Illinois and Connecticut and 50 to Louisiana. At one point, he showed off a new testing machine developed by one of the nation's leading medical device companies, which the administration says will yield results in 15 minutes or less.
And he said his social-distancing guidelines, which were extended through the end of April, "can save more than 1 million lives."
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Later, Trump turned to the lives that have been lost and the challenges facing people fighting for their lives.
"We're going to win. It's just a question of when," he said. "We want to have as few deaths as possible."
Trump said he personally knows people who have been affected by the disease.
"In one case, he's unconscious, he's in a coma, and you say, 'How did that happen?'" he said.
And he acknowledged the dark tally of mortality during a question-and-answer session with reporters.
"You see the numbers like I see the numbers," he said.
But on Monday, he preferred to talk about the numbers from the companies.