White House Weighs New Panel to Map Post-Virus Economic Recovery

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The White House is considering whether to create a working group focused on reviving the U.S. economy after the coronavirus pandemic eases, and whether the panel should include private-sector representatives.

The discussions are in their early stages, according to three people familiar with the matter. Administration officials including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and the director of the National Economic Council, Larry Kudlow, may be involved, the people said.

Meadows has also asked Trump’s daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump to join the group, one person said. All of the people spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions are ongoing.

The Washington Post on Wednesday described the group as a second coronavirus task force. People familiar with the planning said the group could be longer-lasting, similar to a commission.

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No final decisions have been made about the group’s leadership and membership, the people said, and the administration is weighing whether to invite business executives and outside economists to take part.

Kevin Hassett, the former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers who recently returned to the White House to advise on virus-related matters, may also serve on the panel.

Business Needs

The new group would be separate from the coronavirus task force led by Vice President Mike Pence, even though it may include some of the same members. It would focus on addressing the needs of businesses as they recover from coronavirus-related closures and the steps needed to safely open shuttered sectors of the economy.

The current task force is still focused on daily issues of health and safety, such as virus testing capacity, prevention, vaccine trials, medical equipment and other dire needs, but is slowly starting to shift its focus to the economy, as well, aides said.

“President Trump’s policies took this economy to record setting historic highs for all Americans but this unforeseen, unprecedented crisis has hurt many workers and businesses,” Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, said in a statement. “The president wants to see this economy open again so people can get back to work, but scientific data will drive the timeline on those decisions because his number one priority is to protect the safety and well-being of the American people.”

The administration’s top infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci, slashed U.S. projections for the death toll from the virus on Thursday, saying in an NBC News interview that about 60,000 Americans may die in the outbreak. The White House had projected last week the death toll would be 100,000 to 240,000, even with rigorous social-distancing measures in place.

“The real data are telling us it is highly likely we are having a definite positive effect by the mitigation things that we’re doing, this physical separation,” Fauci said.

Trump, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilke, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and other officials are scheduled to hold a conference call with unspecified mental health leaders Thursday to discuss the immediate needs of front-line health-care workers and other Americans struggling with depression, domestic violence and other outbreak-related difficulties.

Trump has repeatedly spoken about his desire to see the country “reopen” following the April 30 expiration of the federal government’s strict social distancing guidelines. The virus, and the steps Americans have taken to isolate themselves from it, have taken a brutal toll on the U.S. economy, eroding a central pillar of Trump’s argument for re-election.

About 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment last week, adding to the 10 million who had already done so in the two weeks prior as businesses across the country were forced to close.

While top officials have spoken about the possibility of reopening parts of the economy by May, they have cautioned that any decision will be based on medical data on the growth of the outbreak. It’s uncertain whether ordinary Americans or their local and state leaders would heed Trump’s encouragement that they return to work and school if the outbreak has not abated.

Surgeon General Jerome Adams said Thursday on Fox News that cases of the virus should ideally decline for two weeks before any region of the country considers relaxing its social distancing efforts. The areas will also need sufficient public-health infrastructure to quickly identify new cases, isolate infected people and trace their contacts, in order to prevent the outbreak from flaring up, he said.

“Once we feel comfortable we can do that, we can start reopening in places that have flattened that curve and have a low lying level of cases, because we have confidence that one case won’t turn into 10, 100, 1,000,” Adams said.

‘Too Early’

Government health officials -- including Fauci and the White House task force coordinator Deborah Birx --met late into the night Tuesday to discuss the medical criteria to safely re-open businesses.

Another top U.S. health official, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Admninistration Seema Verma, said Thursday on Fox News that “it’s too early to identify a specific date” when it might be safe for parts of the country to re-open.

“That being said, the president’s been very clear that he wants us to get through this as quickly as possible, and we are starting to think about what kind of things we would need to have in place in order to re-open.”

Trump first floated the idea for a second working group on Saturday when he shared a tweet from Fox News host Dana Perino, who called for a “nonpartisan/bipartisan” group of experts to look ahead at mending the economy.

“Good idea Dana!” Trump tweeted. It’s not clear whether the White House is considering including Democrats on the new panel.

Asked about the idea at a news conference later that day, Trump said he was “thinking about it.”

“We have to open our country,” the president said. “You know, I had an expression, ‘the cure can’t be worse than the problem itself.’ Right? I started by saying that and I continue to say it. The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself.”

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