When the bosses of some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies headed to Washington in January to meet U.S. President Donald Trump, it had all the makings of a potentially hostile meeting.
Just weeks before, Trump had sent drug stock prices plummeting after accusing the companies of “getting away with murder” by charging too much for medicines.
But the Trump who greeted chief executives of Johnson & Johnson, Novartis, Merck (MRK.N), Eli Lilly, Celgene and Amgen on Jan. 31 was a surprisingly genial host who even gave them a personal tour of the Oval Office, according to several participants in the breakfast, reports Reuters.
“There is no question that it was better than it could have been or we thought it could be,” said one industry insider familiar with the meeting.
Trump did not repeat his public attacks on the industry. Instead, he focused on “outdated” regulations that drive costs up for drugmakers, according to participants interviewed by Reuters. The CEOs left with Trump’s word that he would streamline regulations and reform the high U.S. corporate tax rate.
Since taking office on Jan. 20, Trump has held at least nine meetings with groups of business leaders, including automakers, airlines, retailers and health insurers. In early morning or late-night tweets and in speeches, Trump has lambasted many of these companies for cost over-runs, or high prices, or foreign manufacturing, often knocking down their share prices. (See the effects of Trump’s tweets on stock prices here tmsnrt.rs/2ibdFSF)
But Reuters interviews with nearly a dozen executives and lobbyists who have taken part in these meetings or have been briefed on them reveal a Trump who is very different from his uncompromising and demanding @realDonaldTrump Twitter handle.
When he meets the nation’s top chief executives in person, he is a mix of charm and cajoling. This Trump is flexible and inquisitive, a schmoozer who remembers birthdays and often lavishes praise on their companies, said the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity so they could freely discuss private meetings.
This private side of Trump sheds light on why many CEOs have expressed confidence that the Republican president is good for business, despite his share-denting public attacks. As recently as Tuesday, Trump tweeted he was working on a system to increase competition in the health industry and lower drug pricing, sending pharma shares lower.
In the White House meetings, Trump focuses much of his talk on cutting regulations, the sources said, underscoring one of his administration’s key priorities – getting rid of rules imposed by his predecessor Barack Obama. He typically asks which regulations are holding businesses back from adding new jobs and promises to resolve the issues, executives say.
“He said one thing for the cameras and the door shuts and then it’s like kumbaya,” said one person who was briefed on a meeting between Trump and a group of CEOs.
“He likes to be seen as engaging and buddy buddy with other big important business leaders,” said this person.
A former businessman, Trump runs his closed-door meetings with CEOs as if they were a corporate board meeting, attendees said. In contrast to his doctrinaire tweets, he likes to seek input from everyone at the table, and compared to former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, conversations are less scripted.
Trump’s approach to these meetings is “one of listening and not lecturing”, said a senior White House official who has participated in industry meetings. “I’ve seen a president who is listening and asking questions to get to how he can create a thriving economy,” the official said.
An Amgen spokeswoman said Trump made it clear that he wanted to work with the company on U.S. job creation and biotech innovation. Representatives of the other drugmakers declined to comment.