The daily White House coronavirus briefing looked more like an episode of The Apprentice on Monday, with a line of CEOs pitching the country on how their companies were planning to ramp up efforts to help the United States fight the spread of the coronavirus.
Among the list of CEOs speaking from the White House Rose Garden was Mike Lindell, the head businessman behind the late-night informercial mainstay “My Pillow” and a Republican donor who passionately praised President Donald Trump’s efforts in fighting the virus and pledged his company would escalate its own efforts — making upward of 50,000 cotton masks a day.
Afterward, while some critics questioned why Lindell was addressing the nation about coronavirus from the White House, Lindell tells PEOPLE that Trump paused to show him around his D.C. domain.
“Mike, have you been in the Oval Office?” Trump, 73, asked Lindell, whom he called a friend during the briefing moments earlier.
When Lindell told him no, the 58-year-old CEO says Trump told him, “Well, come on, I’ve got to show you!”
Lindell tells PEOPLE the two spent 20 to 25 minutes having a one-on-one conversation in the Oval Office.
The conversation, which took place amid the most large-scale national crisis the United States has seen in decades, highlights a long-growing kinship between the president and the wily, religiously invigorated infomercial barker, which started growing from a random text message Trump sent Lindell in 2016.
Lindell tells PEOPLE he first met Trump in 2016 after the then-Republican candidate invited him up to Trump Tower in New York City, less than two blocks from Central Park where healthcare workers have rushed this week to set up field hospitals to manage the overflow of COVID-19 patients in New York City hospitals. (More than 183,000 cases of the virus have been confirmed across the U.S. and 3,727 have died, according to a New York Times tracker monitoring the latest available updates.)
The My Pillow salesman says he didn’t know much about politics in 2016. In fact, before January 2009 when he started to get sober following a well-documented crack addiction, Lindell says he didn’t know anything at all.
“When I quit everything — January 16, 2009 — I had never voted, I didn’t know anything about politics. I didn’t know a liberal from a conservative,” he says.
By their August 15 meeting at Trump Tower in 2016, Lindell says he studied up and “learned a little bit about what each party was,” before meeting with the soon-to-be president.
Lindell says Trump “was just intrigued and he wanted to know” about his My Pillow business and picked the CEO’s brain about his company and his American-based operations.
“After that, I’d see him at different events and stuff and we became friends,” Lindell says.
And Lindell has proudly championed Trump since, appearing in the crowd behind him at campaign rallies, writing glowing editorials in local Minnesota newspapers and digging his heels deeper into his belief that God directly chose Donald Trump to become the president of the United States.
Alex Brandon/AP/Shutterstock President Trump looks on as Mike Lindell speaks at the White House on Monday.
Lindell’s second meeting with Trump came after he was invited to attend a manufacturers summit at the White House in 2017 and was seated directly next to the president.
“It was just surreal,” Lindell says. “Now, my friends all seen that on TV — me sitting next to the president — and they’re going, ‘Wow! This can only be God because there’s no way this ex-crack head is sitting next to the president’.”
Lindell says he believes moments like that, and his appearance at Trump’s press conference on Monday, are part of God’s plan for him to be part of “The Great Revival” and be part of “bringing this country back to God and back to Jesus.”
Lindell says he believed Trump was chosen by God “for such a time as this” and that he’d heed God’s call to run for office if he gets a sign from above.
Politico reported that Lindell has been telling associates that he was approached by Trump to run for governor of Minnesota as a Republican in 2022.
Lindell denies the report and tells PEOPLE that he hasn’t been approached by Trump or anyone in the administration, but instead a number of governors, congressmen and other former lawmakers have all implored him to run in 2022.
“If I’d gotten prayer to run, I would do it in a second,” Lindell tells PEOPLE. “I’m going to do what God wants me to do.”
Lindell says South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Minnesota Rep. Jason Lewis were among those who encouraged him to run.
“They said, ‘Mike, you’ll like it,’” Lindell says. “They encouraged me.”
But that’s 2022, Lindell says. He doesn’t know whether he’ll run for the state’s gubernatorial race yet or not. He only learned about politics a few years ago, he says.
“When I came out of addiction, I’m going, ‘Wow!’ And I’ve learned now over the past couple of years, it affects everything we do,” Lindell says he realized.
Justin Sullivan/Getty My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell cheers as President Donald Trump gives a speech at a campaign rally on June 27, 2018 in Fargo, North Dakota.
Inside the Oval Office on Monday, the fiercely loyal Trump ally says he and the president talked about business and an idea to put health care workers at the front doors of public buildings to make sure customers aren’t carrying the virus. The pair also discussed whether churches could be considered an “essential business” during social distancing shutdowns.
“We need to get people back working and people in churches,” Lindell tells PEOPLE. “This is sad that this is going on and our churches are getting attacked.”
The president — who has faced his own share of criticism from evangelical voters in recent months — had already pushed back his dream date of April 16, Easter, to reopen the U.S. after weeks of isolation due to the virus.
“Wouldn’t it be great to have all the churches full?” Trump said during a Fox News interview last Tuesday. “You’ll have packed churches all over our country. I think it’ll be a beautiful time.”
President Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been widely criticized, especially from a growing list of governors who say the federal government needs to do more to send necessary medical supplies to states reeling with the effects of the outbreak.
Instead, Trump has trumpeted private businesses like Lindell’s that he says are stepping up to help the country in a time of crisis.
But while the president’s past life as a reality television star was well-known before he was elected in 2016, Trump still draws criticism and shock when he involves politically loyal business leaders to speak at the presidential podium.
“Don’t give me the MyPillow guy doing a song and dance when people are dying in Queens!” New York City sportscaster and longtime Trump ally Mike Francesa said in response to Monday’s press conference.
“We don’t need to hear from the My Pillow guy, we need to hear from the My Face-Mask guy and My Ventilator guy and the My Virus Test guy,” another viral tweet criticizing Lindell’s appearance read.
The Trump campaign defended Lindell’s standing alongside the president in the time of a global crisis.
“Mike Lindell is a great American and is grateful to the country that gave him a second chance at life,” Trump campaign spokesperson Tim Murtaugh told PEOPLE, referencing Lindell’s previous addiction. “He has become wildly successful through hard work and perseverance and is now trying to help his fellow citizens by converting his factory to make 50,000 masks a day. Instead of mocking him, the unhinged left should be appreciative.”
The White House did not respond for a request for comment.
Lindell says he’s since been “attacked” by the media, which he’s been speaking to all day, including an appearance later Tuesday night on Fox News for an interview with anchor Lou Dobbs.
“I’m just trying to do a lot here all at once,” Lindell tells PEOPLE, putting the phone down to ask an assistant what time his interview is on Fox because he’ll need to change his suit.
Sounding rushed and filled with a sense of duty following his one-on-one with the president, Lindell says he’s flying to Denver soon to pick up a shipment of hand sanitizer he’s “experimenting” with to create a 24-hour sanitation gel he believes can help stop coronavirus and help his friend, Donald Trump.
“I’m very proud of what he’s done,” Lindell says. “I will not back down ever — ever.”
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