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Another task force: Trump’s new committee opens with confusion

In this April 1, 2020, photo, President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. At a time of social distancing,Trump is leaning into his plea to Congress to restore full tax benefits prized by business for fine dining and schmoozing. Trump is seizing on the pandemic crisis to target an item on his wish list: full tax deductions for business meals in restaurants and for other entertainment expenses. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

(CNN) — President Donald Trump is eagerly seeking the nation’s top business thinkers for a panel to guide the reopening of the country, though it remains unclear who will serve on his “Opening the Country Council” or what its express purpose might be.

The process of convening the group has become another scramble for a White House still working to confront the coronavirus pandemic, which has shut down entire sectors and sent unemployment skyrocketing.

The details of the committee have already changed several times in recent days, one official told CNN. Who will participate and what they will look to do remains fluid even though Trump said he will formally announce the council Tuesday.

“It’s a mess right now,” someone in close contact with the White House said.

The new task force — or multiple task forces — isn’t to be confused with the existing coronavirus task force, the assemblage of administration officials and doctors assigned to combat the public health crisis.

Inside the West Wing, the new panel is viewed as a counterbalance to the health-focused task force, particularly as Trump weighs whether to lift mitigation recommendations by May 1 — a move that he hopes will lead to a “reopening” of the country. Officials have been trying to tamp down the formality of the second task force, hinting that it won’t meet regularly like the one focused on public health does.

How the groups interface was one of the lingering matters to be resolved before the new council is announced at Tuesday afternoon’s coronavirus task force briefing at the White House.

It is expected to be led by Mark Meadows, the chief of staff who began in his job late last month.

The composition will likely include several Cabinet secretaries, according to senior administration officials, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and the heads of the departments of Energy, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture and Labor.

White House officials such as Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, and Russell Vought, the head of the Office of Management and Budget, are also likely to participate.

The President’s senior advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump will not participate, Trump told reporters on Monday. The disclosure caught some of his aides by surprise because the President’s son-in-law and daughter were expected by some to be involved.

The President has described the task force members as “the best names in various businesses and professions and religions.”

“These are the greatest names, the people I think probably know the best,” Trump said. “We called them and we’re going to be speaking to them very soon and we want them to have, if it’s questions or statements, we want them to have that for us.”

While Mnuchin said Monday that he and the President had reviewed a broad list of over 100 business people, it’s not clear who will actually be a formal member of the group. Some outside figures have been hesitant to join such a precarious endeavor to reopen the country, though many business officials have told the White House they agree it should happen soon.

Trump did not offer much clarity during Monday’s briefing.

“We’re actually calling it a number of committees with the most prominent people in the country, the most successful people in the various fields, and we’ll be announcing them tomorrow,” Trump said.

“We’ll have a transportation committee. We’re going to have a manufacturing committee,” the President added. “We’ll also have religious leaders committee. We have a great group of religious leaders. Committees with religious leaders.”

“I will call them committees,” he added, “ultimately we’re going to make decisions.”

A source who regularly advises chief executives cast doubt on the notion that business leaders would formally join a new White House task force. Instead, if the administration begins to tout outside business leaders, it’s likely a result of officials such as Mnuchin calling them and asking if the administration could solicit their advice from time to time, said the source.

“They aren’t going to say ‘no,’ ” said the source.

Still, there’s a big difference between committing to take a White House call for advice and a formal committee advising the President. One of Trump’s confidants, and a likely candidate to join any business-centered task force, Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman hadn’t yet been asked to join the effort, according to a person close to Schwarzman.

Business leaders have been hesitant to formally tie themselves to the Trump administration in the past, and often prefer to keep their relationship with the President private. The business councils Trump formed at the onset of his administration disintegrated after he blamed “many sides” for white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Many of the corporate leaders fled the groups after the President’s remarks, though he later claimed he dissolved them on his own.

Some of Trump’s allies have proposed naming a recovery “czar” from the private sector to oversee efforts to revive the consumer economy and address unemployment after coronavirus forced the closure of businesses across sectors.

Influential conservatives have floated economist Art Laffer as the leader of the task force, and he has presented some ideas — such as a payroll tax waiver — to senior White House aides. Trump awarded Laffer a presidential medal of freedom last year, but the White House hasn’t yet offered him a position on a new panel, according to a senior administration official.

Laffer told CNN this week he hasn’t been asked to be on the economic task force — and that given its likely large size, he’s not particularly inclined to participate

Trump said Monday he expects recommendations from the committee “soon.”

“They already know what I want,” he said, “I don’t have to give them instructions. They are sophisticated people, the best people in their fields.”