White House effort to shift toward economy yields mixed messages

The president is eager to shift focus to the economy, but advisers offer differing outlooks as the pivot begins.

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By Kristen Welker, Carol E. Lee, Monica Alba and Shannon Pettypiece

WASHINGTON — One of President Donald Trump’s top economic advisers — Kevin Hassett — is warning of unemployment rates in coming months that Americans haven’t seen since the Great Depression. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is predicting the economy will surge over the summer.

As Trump shifts from a self-described wartime president battling the coronavirus pandemic to a cheerleader for reopening the U.S. economy, the mixed messages coming from his administration risk confusing the markets, private industry and local and state officials. Trump’s pivot to the economy comes as the death toll in the U.S. from the virus has surpassed 55,000. And it’s aimed at making Americans feel optimistic about the near future even as the pandemic persists, administration officials said.

Behind the scenes, the White House is preparing for the president to push an optimistic message of economic revival while diminishing the public presence of his top health officials, including Drs. Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci.

Fauci hasn’t been seen at a White House briefing since last Wednesday.

While Birx and Fauci will continue to participate in closed-door meetings of the White House’s coronavirus task force, those meetings — and their public appearances — may become less frequent amid the shift to revitalizing the economy, officials said.

Trump has been eager to lean into an economic message as states begin reopening some businesses. His campaign advisers believe that a strong bounce in the economy will be critical if Trump is to win re-election in November and that the message the president begins to put forward now will be the centerpiece of his campaign pitch this summer and fall.

To bolster that message, the president will convene economy-themed events at the White House, including one Monday in the Roosevelt Room with retail industry leaders. White House officials are also looking at various options for him to resume travel outside of Washington to hold small events highlighting American workers or businesses that are reopening.

At the same time, the White House plans to scale back the daily coronavirus briefings — and the president’s appearances — compared to the last two months, when he held court for hours at a time. Any briefings the president does appear at now may have a different look and theme: the economy.

The White House announced there would be a coronavirus briefing Monday evening, then said it was canceled, and then White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany wrote on Twitter that Trump would hold a news conference to lay out “additional testing guidance and other announcements about safely opening up America again.”

Trump has been itching for weeks to get parts of the economy reopened and set expectations — such as packed churches on Easter — that haven’t been met. His attempt to create an economic task force has been hampered since the president caught some industry leaders off guard by announcing they would be members. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that nearly 60 percent of voters are more concerned about relaxed stay-at-home restrictions leading to more coronavirus deaths than they are that the restrictions will hurt the economy.

One administration official described the new White House messaging as a “reopening of America” theme designed to showcase the “great American comeback story.”

Yet that messaging has gotten off to a conflicting start.

Hassett warned on Sunday that “the next couple of months are going to look terrible.”

“You’re going to see numbers that are as bad as anything that we've ever seen,” he said on ABC’s “This Week,” adding that significant negative GDP growth is likely.

At the same time on “Fox News Sunday,” Mnuchin said: “What I do think is, as we open up the economy in May, in June, you will begin to see the economy bounce back in July, August, September, and my expectation is that you'll see an increasing rate of growth in those three months.”

On Monday Hassett played down any differences within the president’s economic team. He said a Mnuchin is optimistic about a quick recovery, and pointed to negotiations with Congress on a fourth economic relief package.

Yet, he added, the longer an economic shutdown continues, “the odds of a quick recovery go down.”

“This is the biggest negative shock an economy has ever seen,” Hassett told reporters at the White House. “Any economist that tells you they know what's going to happen is feeding you something they shouldn’t be.”