Corporate executives play an outsize role at Trump’s coronavirus briefings

“God gave us grace on November 8, 2016, to change the course we were on,” Lindell said, referring to the date of Trump’s election. “God had been taken out of our schools and lives. A nation had turned its back on God.”

Trump said he had not known that Lindell, a friend and campaign donor, would say that, but the pattern of presidential praise and product placement was already well-established.

“Thank you, Mr. President, for your call to action, which has empowered companies like “My Pillow” to help our nation win this invisible war,” Lindell said in one of several references to the name of his product and his company, which will be making cotton face masks.

Reporters then heard from executives from underwear manufacturer Jockey International Inc., Honeywell International Inc., Procter and Gamble Co. and United Technologies Corp.

“Fantastic,” Trump said. “Those are great companies. Thank you very much.”

The scene was the latest example of what has become a Trump default as he faces the enormity of a health crisis that has grounded a high-flying economy while forcing nearly 3 out of every 4 Americans to stay home.

He reaches for the advice and company of companies, from banks to health-care firms to hoteliers to cruise ship operators to shipping companies UPS and FedEx, which sent executives to a similar session Sunday. More than two weeks ago, it was retailers such as Walmart and CVS, two participants in another camera-ready Rose Garden event.

Often, these sessions are part theater and part news conference. Reporters sit and the television cameras roll as Trump recaps the day’s meetings and invites a series of testimonials. Often, the executives get more airtime than the medical professionals who are part of the White House virus task force.

“Thomas Moriarty, CVS. We all know CVS. Thank you,” Trump said as he welcomed the drugstore executive vice president to step forward at a March 13 event.

After a round of thank-yous, Moriarty gave a mission statement for his company’s participation in what he and other executives said is a critical national mobilization.

“Thank you, Mr. President. We have been focused, since the start, on making sure our patients and the customers we serve have the information they need and the safety they need as well. We are committed to working with the administration and local public health officials to make this work as well. And thank you, sir, for the honor,” Moriarty said.

Although the coronavirus pandemic has hit small businesses, hourly workers and the gig economy especially hard, Trump’s public efforts frequently focus on familiar brand names. Boeing. General Motors. Walgreens.

Trump freely notes that his own business background colors how he views the pandemic and its economic effects.

“Today, we’re glad to be joined by leaders of America’s medical supply and shipping companies. They’re big people. I know their names very well, from watching business and studying business all my life,” Trump said in the Cabinet Room on Sunday.

“We’re waging a war against the invisible enemy. We are grateful for your tremendous partnership — it’s been incredible — and the work you’ve done so far. And I know you’ve not only — so far, you’re geared up. I know that for a fact.”

On Monday, he described the CEOs as “some of the greatest business executives in the world today.”

Trump has played master of ceremonies at about a half dozen White House events with reporters present where the private sector discussed ways to cooperate with the government in what he and other officials have likened to a wartime national effort. He has also hosted representatives for nursing and other professions heavily affected by the outbreak.

Trump is not the first president to use the media as a backdrop and a command audience. Nor is he unusual in his effort to draw in the private sector as helpmate and adviser. His focus on big companies is nonetheless striking, and fits with Trump’s political brand as a wealthy businessman willing to shake up the system.

The private sector focus may also be a shield against the charge of hypocrisy for massive government spending by a president who rails against “socialism,” but such criticism remains muted.

The $2.2 trillion emergency aid package that Trump signed into law Friday would help cash-strapped companies. It bars Trump and his children from relief money. So far, Trump hasn’t provided a clear answer on whether his own businesses would seek the financial help.

For the companies involved in the pandemic response, there is both a patriotic call to action and, at Trump’s invitation, a rare opportunity to show it off — a literal Rose Garden moment in the sun.

“Great job,” Trump said over and over on Sunday, as he invited executives to the microphone to describe their work.

“Fantastic job,” he said as some of the executives plugged their good works. Some praised Trump, all thanked him.

“Thank you, Mr. President, for the incredible leadership,” Laura Lane, president of global public affairs at UPS, began. “I will share with you that UPS is really proud to be part of this effort,” she said. She pledged the resources of her “Big Brown Army,” a reference to the ubiquitous color of UPS trucks and uniforms.

“Thank you very much. Great job you’re doing,” Trump said, as he brought up the next executive.

In an interview, Lane said it was an “easy decision” to accept the White House invitation and to use the company’s resources to try to move products where they are needed.

“Philosophically, I will tell you for our company it doesn’t matter who’s in the White House. I know there’s a lot of people who love President Trump and a lot of people who probably don’t love President Trump,” Lane said.

“What I tried to do is deliver a message of hope,” and rally the company’s employees, she said.

“We have to deliver for the country.”

Trump has remained polarizing despite the moment of national crisis, according to public polling, although he gets better marks for his handling of the pandemic now than he did early on.

Some companies may weigh whether there is a reputational risk for appearing alongside Trump.

“It depends,” said Carol Phillips, who runs a marketing firm called Brand Amplitude and teaches marketing at the University of Notre Dame.

“In general, the rule of thumb is that anything that contributes to positive awareness is a good thing, but in the current polarized and anxious environment, the rules may have changed,” she said.

For salesmen like Lindell or chef and restaurateur Wolfgang Puck, whom Trump said he had consulted Sunday, the presidential mention is probably a boon.

That may be especially true for Puck.

“Wolfgang Puck is a great restaurateur, as you know, as is Jean-Georges and Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud, and other leaders in the restaurant business, which has been probably one of the hardest-hit industries,” Trump said Sunday. Jean-Georges Vongerichten and the others are all celebrity chefs who have built business empires.

“I’ve directed my staff to use any and all authority available to give restaurants, bars, clubs incentives to stay open. You’re going to lose all these restaurants and they’re not going to make it back,” Trump said.

He said he is directing his Cabinet to look into restoring a tax deduction for corporate entertainment and restaurant meals.

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