Heeding calls for action, Trump invokes Defense Production Act

WASHINGTON — President Trump on Wednesday invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA), a set of emergency powers that will give the federal government the ability to ramp up the production of medical supplies such as masks, ventilators, gloves and other equipment to help the U.S. medical system respond to coronavirus cases.

“We will be invoking the Defense Production Act,” Trump said at a midday White House news conference. “We have targets for certain pieces of equipment.”

“We’ve ordered millions of masks, but we need millions more,” he said. “We need ventilators. … It’s a complicated piece of equipment.”

Trump’s announcement came one day after he said he preferred not to use the DPA. “We hope we don’t need it. It’s a big step,” he said Tuesday.

The White House was reported to be discussing using DPA powers around three weeks ago, but at that time the president was downplaying the risk of the coronavirus.

Asked why it took so long for the administration to invoke the DPA, Trump said the current crisis was “a very unforeseen thing.”

“It snuck up on us,” he said at another point in the news conference.

Asked about warnings from medical professionals who have been saying for weeks that they need more ventilators, masks and other pieces of crucial equipment, Trump said that in the “worst case” that was accurate, but in the “best case not at all.”

President Donald Trump speaks during press briefing with the Coronavirus Task Force, at the White House, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)
President Trump at a coronavirus task force news briefing on Wednesday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Vice President Mike Pence said that on Tuesday, Trump had spoken with “all the top companies in our industrial and medical supply chain.”

“We’re hearing a tremendous spirit among industry leaders who are ready to step in and add to that volume,” Pence said.

But Trump did not provide any specifics and at one point suggested he was not yet ready to use DPA powers. “If we need to use it, we’ll be using it,” he said.

Medical experts have cited the possibility that hospitals and medical providers will be overwhelmed by coronavirus patients in the coming weeks. The U.S. medical system does not have enough hospital beds, respirator masks for medical workers or ventilators to assist sick patients with breathing to meet the number of cases expected to emerge over the next few weeks.

The number of cases in the United States, over 5,881 by Wednesday afternoon in all 50 states, is on the same trajectory as in many other countries, including Italy, which now has more than 31,000 cases.

The Defense Production Act was enacted during the Cold War to allow the president to cajole — and even coerce — industry into producing products deemed necessary for national defense. In this case, the DPA would allow the U.S. government “to incentivize a company who already makes [emergency medical supplies] to make more of them,” said Jeff Bialos, a veteran Washington attorney who served as deputy undersecretary of defense for industrial affairs in the Clinton White House.

The DPA would allow the federal government to offer loans and loan guarantees to companies that currently manufacture emergency medical supplies, enabling them to dramatically increase their production of those items. The U.S. medical system has about 30 million N95 respirators for medical workers to wear while caring for the sick. One estimate is that the actual need in a worst-case scenario would be 300 million masks. The manufacturer 3M, which makes them, is already increasing its production.

Yet even with the DPA, it would typically take industry time to ramp up production. Dov Zakheim, the Pentagon’s comptroller under President George W. Bush, told Yahoo News in an interview Tuesday that Trump should have invoked the DPA long before now.

“We’re behind the eight ball, because we’ve been reactive. Here’s an opportunity to be proactive — if you even want to call it proactive at this point,” Zakheim said.


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