Trump taps Detroit auto chiefs for 'economic revival' industry group

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Washington — Leaders of General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Tesla Inc. met with President Donald Trump via telephone on Wednesday to provide advice on restarting the U.S. economy as the coronavirus pandemic subsides. 

The discussion took place during the first meeting of a manufacturing panel that will be part of the "Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups" set up by the White House. It occurred against the backdrop of the president agitating to ease virus-related restrictions in a bid to jumpstart the economy. The panel includes General Motors CEO Mary Barra, Ford Motor Co. executive chairman Bill Ford, FCA CEO Mike Manley and Tesla CEO Elon Musk. 

Trump said of the business leaders he spoke with Wednesday: "Today I spoke with the leaders of many of our nation's most renowned companies and organization on how to achieve the full resurgence of the American economy. 

"These experts and innovators provided extremely productive feedback on how to safely reboot our economy," Trump said of discussions. "They provided valuable insights on how to move forward, including on the role of protective gear, where we have tremendous amounts of protective gear coming in, robust testing and the future use of therapies and treatments. They also underscored the crucial importance of strong supply chains and communications infrastructure."

In a statement released after the call, FCA said: “As we think about reopening the economy, FCA's first priority is the health and safety of our employees, their families and the communities we call home.

"We have been working closely with the UAW and are pleased to work with the Administration to ensure that the appropriate social distancing protocols and PPE are in place for our workers to be safe and productive as we restart production at our facilities across the United States," the automaker said.

The White House said late Tuesday that the auto chiefs would be joined on the manufacturing panel by leaders from Dow Inc., General Electric, Caterpillar and Deere & Company. Other panels will focus on sectors such as agriculture, banking, construction, labor and energy.

President Donald Trump greets General Motors CEO Mary Barra prior to a meeting with auto industry leaders in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

During an earlier call with a banking panel, banking and financial services executives warned the Trump administration that a dramatic increase in the availability of coronavirus testing would be necessary before the public would be confident enough to return to work, according to a Wall Street Journal report. 

The Construction/Labor/Workforce panel includes leaders from the AFL-CIO, International Union of Operating Engineers, North America’s Building Trades Union, Laborers’ International Union of North America and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The United Auto Workers is not included in the group. 

The White House said in a statement released prior to Wednesday's conference calls the industry groups "will work together with the White House to chart the path forward toward a future of unparalleled American prosperity. The health and wealth of America is the primary goal, and these groups will produce a more independent, self-sufficient, and resilient Nation."

Ford Motor Co. spokeswoman Rachel McCleery said the Dearborn automaker "is pleased to be working with a wide range of government and industry officials on ways to restart our economy safely and successfully." 

In a statement, GM said it "continues to work hard to help meet our nation’s needs during this unprecedented crisis. At the same time, we recognize the importance of developing the necessary framework to begin the economic recovery and look forward to continuing discussions with the Administration and industry leaders to chart the path forward."

The announcement, made public at close to midnight, came as a surprise to several of the automakers involved, according to three sources familiar with the dynamics between the White House and the industry. Also scheduled to meet with Trump Wednesday afternoon were representatives of the working groups on agriculture, construction, labor and workforce, defense, energy,

Automakers have played a central role in the business community's response to the coronavirus pandemic. In an effort dubbed the "Arsenal of Health" pegged to the industry's efforts during World War II, GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler have been working to increase production of vital medical equipment such as masks, face shields, ventilators and respirators as the nation tries to combat the coronavirus pandemic." 

Trump has vacillated between praising the companies for stepping up to assist the nation in the fight to combat the coronavirus and chastising them for not converting to make health equipment fast enough. 

Detroit’s automakers are walking a fine line: Although they have been hit hard by the coronavirus crisis, they are wary of appearing to ask for handouts a decade after the federal government was forced to bail out General Motors and Chrysler. Before Congress approved its massive aid package in March, automakers had lobbied for loan guarantees, deferred corporate tax payments and tax deductions for paid leaves to employees.

Lawmakers largely ignored the requests while granting financial assistance to hospitals and airlines. But as part of the relief package, automakers and their parts suppliers will be able to qualify for loans that can become grants if they demonstrate they used the money for operations expenses.

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing