Trump reluctantly invoked an obscure wartime power. Here’s what it means.  

By: and - April 3, 2020 1:51 pm

President Donald J. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence participate in a roundtable with CEOs in the Cabinet Room of the White House Monday, March 30, 2020, to discuss public-private partnership efforts to respond to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. | Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour via Flickr Public Domain

WASHINGTON — As his administration came under fire for its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, President Donald Trump last week invoked an obscure Korean War-era law to force General Motors to manufacture ventilators that could save patients’ lives.

But the company had already been in talks to produce the equipment. And Trump waited weeks to do so, raising questions about how effective his actions would be.

“Our fight against the virus is too urgent to allow the give-and-take of the contracting process to continue to run its normal course. GM was wasting time,” Trump said as he invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) on March 27. “Today’s action will help ensure the quick production of ventilators that will save American lives.”

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Several governors and congressional Democrats had pressed Trump to use the Defense Production Act for weeks, arguing that the president could harness the power of American businesses to produce ventilators and protective medical gear before the number of COVID-19 patients in the country spiked.

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly), a former Pentagon official and CIA analyst, introduced legislation last month along with fellow U.S. Reps. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and John Katko (R-N.Y.). The “Medical Supply Chain Emergency Act” would require Trump to trigger the DPA.

“The most urgent task for the federal government is to accelerate the flow of vital supplies to our front-line medical providers,” Slotkin said. “I would not ordinarily advocate for legislation telling the executive branch how to manage a crisis, but I cannot ignore the outcry from my district and my state. We need federal action now, and if the President will not use his authorities, I will do everything I can to push him to act.”

The law gives the federal government special powers to support the military or protect homeland security. It allows the federal government, for example, to prioritize its own orders above a company’s other customers for items that it deems necessary. Federal agencies can also conserve valuable resources or incentivize the production of certain goods with loans or purchase agreements.

Trump and his administration resisted calls to use the law to address COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus, even though invoking the law is standard practice in national emergencies. During 2018, for example, the Trump administration used the law more than 1,300 times for homeland security purposes.

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“Approximately half of these rated orders involved resources needed to house and feed disaster survivors and first responders, communications equipment and information technology needs and other logistical needs supporting disaster response and recovery efforts,” the Federal Emergency Management Agency reported.

The president, however, likened the use of the law for coronavirus supplies as “nationalizing” U.S. industries. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, opposed the sort of broad use of the Defense Production Act supported by Democrats and even some Republicans.

The business group said the law was designed for products bought by the military that relied on a single supplier and no alternative sources. It cautioned against expanding beyond those circumstances.

“Imposing new strictures on U.S. firms that require flexibility as they strive mightily to boost production in the cooperative spirit demanded by the present national emergency would be counterproductive. In these circumstances, an expansion of government regulation would be unhelpful and risky,” the chamber argued in a memo.

So far, Trump has only used the law narrowly. His order applies only to GM and only to its efforts to start building ventilators. Other automakers, including Ford and Tesla, that are starting to build ventilators are not covered by Trump’s order. Neither, for that matter, are General Motors’ efforts to produce medical masks.

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General Motors is working with Ventec Life Systems to produce ventilators at GM’s plant in Kokomo, Ind. The automaker said it began working on the medical devices in mid-March, before Trump issued his order. GM said it can eventually produce up to 10,000 of the machines a month, although its output will initially be lower.

Because the partnership between GM and Ventec was already in the works, it’s not clear whether Trump’s use of the Defense Production Act will speed up the delivery of ventilators. According to CNN, even White House officials acknowledged the timeline wouldn’t shift much, because GM still had to reconfigure its factory to make the devices. Trump announced he would use the law for GM the day after The New York Times reported that his administration was having second thoughts about approving as much as $1 billion of spending for GM’s respirators.

The New York Times ran a story Thursday reporting that the White House planned to announce a venture between General Motors and Ventec to produce 80,000 ventilators. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) balked at the $1 billion price tag and it would result in an expensive surplus of ventilators.

Trump took to Twitter last week to blame GM and “Mary B.” — not using the full name of a female leader, something he has done while attacking Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

“As usual with “this” General Motors, things just never seem to work out. They said they were going to give us 40,000 much needed Ventilators, “very quickly”. Now they are saying it will only be 6000, in late April, and they want top dollar. Always a mess with Mary B. Invoke “P,”” Trump tweeted.

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Once the ventilators are made, however, it is still unclear how they will be distributed. Governors in many states have complained about the lack of equipment they have received from the federal government’s stockpile of medical supplies. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said his state needs 30,000 ventilators to prepare for a surge in hospitalizations, but Trump said New York has “more than enough.”

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker complained that, in one case, the federal government sent surgical masks instead of the N95 respirators the state requested.

Several governors, including Whitmer, have repeatedly sounded the alarm that they are essentially in a bidding war with each other and sometimes the federal government for scarce supplies, including ventilators. Trump told governors last month that they shouldn’t count on the feds and should try and secure equipment themselves.

“With a pandemic that is hitting every single one of our states, our ability to meet the need is severely compromised, and when the National Stockpile is not able to meet our needs and we are told to go find it on our own, we have to become a procurement agency unlike anything that’s ever been created,” Whitmer said in late March. “We as Americans shouldn’t be bidding against one another. we should be able to harness the federal power to ensure that everyone’s got what they need. That’s not happening. And so we are in this position.”

Trump has repeatedly personally attacked Whitmer and even bragged last week that he told Vice President Mike Pence, who’s running the administration’s COVID-19 response, not to take her calls.

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“Don’t call the woman in Michigan. It doesn’t make any difference what happens,” Trump said during a March 27 press briefing. “… You know what I say? If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.”

The day after, Michigan did get a shipment of more than 100,000 N95 masks from the national stockpile and has since gotten some other supplies. However, Whitmer remains adamant that the supply is not enough, as many metro Detroit hospitals are at capacity for treating coronavirus patients and a field hospital is being erected in the TCF Center in Detroit.

As of Thursday afternoon, Michigan had more than 10,000 cases and more than 400 deaths.

In recent days, several governors have mentioned a potential solution to the competition among states: a joint purchasing effort among state governments.

Cuomo, a Democrat, raised the possibility late last month. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, mentioned it on CNN on Tuesday. Cuomo and Hogan are the vice-chair and chair, respectively, of the National Governors Association. An NGA spokesman confirmed that the governors had discussed the possibility, but had no other details.

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Daniel C. Vock
Daniel C. Vock

Daniel C. Vock is a Washington correspondent for States Newsroom.

Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 21-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 4,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 70 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.