Trump, Mnuchin signal support for easing small business loan restrictions

Zachary Warmbrodt

President Donald Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Monday signaled the administration would support giving companies more flexibility in how they use emergency small business loans, amid mounting complaints that restrictions on the aid are too onerous.

A room full of restaurant industry executives meeting with Trump at the White House urged the president to ease limits on the so-called Paycheck Protection Program, which Congress created to help avert layoffs during the Covid-19 pandemic. The loans have proved immensely popular because they can be forgiven if employers agree to maintain their payrolls.

Restaurants and other industries are lobbying lawmakers and the administration to give businesses more time to spend the funds as shutdown orders across the country are lasting longer than expected. The current time frame for borrowers to spend the money and still have it forgiven is eight weeks, and there is growing support on Capitol Hill to extend the window to 24 weeks.

Trump, seemingly impressed by the industry's unified position, appeared willing to relax restrictions on the loans, saying "we'll look at that very strongly."

"That should be easy," he said. "That's like one of the easiest requests I've ever heard."

The comments by Trump, as well as Mnuchin, underscored the increasing consensus in Washington around retooling the small business loan program, which policymakers hurriedly launched on April 3 to help fight the economic downturn.

At Monday's White House event, Mnuchin said the administration was working on a "technical fix" with regard to the eight-week window to spend Paycheck Protection Program loan funds and that there was bipartisan support for it. Mnuchin has said in recent days that revising the program could require intervention by Congress.

The Treasury secretary said he wasn't sure if the loan time frame would be extended for as long as 24 weeks, which the restaurant industry wants. Attendees at the meeting included Chef Thomas Keller, Panera Bread CEO Niren Chaudhary and Landry's CEO Tilman Fertitta.

The industry representatives also urged Trump to allow businesses to spend more of the loan money on non-payroll expenses. The Treasury Department and the Small Business Administration, which are implementing the program, are requiring borrowers to use at least 75 percent of the funds on payroll to have the full amount of the loans forgiven.

In one ask that stood out from the request of the group, Fertitta urged Trump to set aside Paycheck Protection Program money for large restaurant chains, which have been pressured into returning the loans after a public backlash. Fertitta said he was among those who sent back the money.

Trump seemed sympathetic to the request, even as Mnuchin tried to dismiss it.

"I can understand what he's saying," Trump said. "Let's take a look at it."