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Trump Resists Using Wartime Law To Get, Distribute Coronavirus Supplies

Mar 25, 2020
Originally published on March 27, 2020 2:45 pm

The Trump administration has so far resisted calls to use a Cold War-era law to help fill gaps in medical supplies that are badly needed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Many governors and health officials have been pleading with President Trump to use his authority under the Defense Production Act to get the federal government more directly involved in the buying and distribution of items like ventilators and face masks — items that have been in short supply, with states competing for them.

But Trump has given mixed messages about his use of the law, and the White House has argued that it has not needed to use its authority under the measure because the private sector has been cooperating with the administration on its own.

The Defense Production Act was first enacted during the Korean War. It gives the executive branch the power to direct the production and distribution of materials that are deemed essential to national defense. The government can jump to the front of the line to buy goods from companies and ship them where needed.

While Trump has designated ventilators and protective equipment as essential under the law, he has not used the act to force companies to produce certain items.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says it's time for Trump to use this authority to get the state — which is the state hit hardest so far by the coronavirus — the 30,000 additional ventilators he says it desperately needs.

"Only the federal government has that power. And not to exercise that power is inexplicable to me," Cuomo said on Tuesday.

Vice President Pence said the federal government is sending 4,000 ventilators to New York from the national stockpile.

Pence and other Trump administration officials have maintained that private companies are stepping up without government force.

Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro told reporters on Sunday that the threat of the Defense Production Act is leverage enough.

"What we've seen with this outpouring of volunteers from private enterprise, we're getting what we need without putting the heavy hand of government down," he said.

The White House message on the law has been muddled at times. After being pressed by reporters, Trump said last week that he had directed "a lot" of companies to make ventilators.

The White House then walked that back, saying Trump had not taken that action.

Then on Tuesday morning, FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor told CNN that the agency would use the law to secure 60,000 coronavirus test kits. Hours later, FEMA press secretary Lizzie Litzow said in a statement: "At the last minute we were able to procure the test kits from the private market without evoking [sic] the DPA."

Trump on Sunday explained his reluctance to use the law by likening it to a government takeover of companies.

"We're a country not based on nationalizing our business," he said. "Call a person over in Venezuela. Ask them, how did nationalization of their businesses work out? Not too well. The concept of nationalizing our business is not a good concept."

Peter Shulman, a history professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio who has studied the Defense Production Act, says that while some private companies are stepping up to offer their services, private industry acting on its own won't be able to get the goods to where they're needed most.

He said the act has been used throughout history to respond to emergencies too big and complex for the country's free markets to handle.

"This is the kind of crisis that has to be met with centralized leadership only for the duration of the crisis. But absent that, it's just a recipe for chaos," Shulman said.

This story was updated with a full digital version at 4:25 p.m. ET.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In this crisis, compared to a war, the president faces pressure to use the Defense Production Act. It lets him command industry to produce vital supplies. So how, if at all, is he using it? NPR's Ayesha Rascoe reports.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: New York has been hit hard by the coronavirus, and Governor Andrew Cuomo says he needs help now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW CUOMO: I need 30,000 ventilators. You want a pat on the back for sending 400 ventilators? What are we going to do for 400 - with 400 ventilators when we need 30,000 ventilators?

RASCOE: Vice President Pence says thousands of ventilators are headed to New York this week, but Cuomo wants the federal government to take more drastic action.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CUOMO: Only the federal government has that power, and not to exercise that power is inexplicable to me.

RASCOE: The power that he's talking about is the Defense Production Act. The law gives the executive branch broad authority to direct production and distribution of materials deemed essential to national defense. In this case, President Trump declared last week that ventilators and protective equipment, like face masks, fit that criteria.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We'll be invoking the Defense Production Act just in case we need it.

RASCOE: The law allows the government to jump to the front of the line to buy up goods and ship them where needed. Cuomo and others say Trump opened the toolbox; now it's time to use the tools. But Trump has given conflicting answers on his use of the law. Last Friday, Trump told reporters he was using the law to make companies take action.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You haven't actually directed any companies to start making more ventilators or masks, right?

TRUMP: I have. I have, yes. I have.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: How many...

TRUMP: A lot.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: ...Companies? We're trying to see if you are requiring them.

TRUMP: And they're making a lot of ventilators, and they're making a lot of masks.

RASCOE: The administration later said the president was not using the law to push production of ventilators. Instead, on Sunday, Trump's trade adviser Peter Navarro said the law is working as leverage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETER NAVARRO: What we've seen with this outpouring of volunteers from private enterprise, we're getting what we need without putting the heavy hand of government down.

RASCOE: At that same briefing, Trump compared the law to a government takeover of companies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: You know, we're a country not based on nationalizing our business. Call a person over in Venezuela; ask them how did nationalization of their businesses work out - not too well. The concept of nationalizing our business is not a good concept.

RASCOE: Peter Shulman is a history professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. He's studied the act and says comparisons to socialism don't really add up.

PETER SHULMAN: The law itself grew out of the preservation of a market economy. It grew out of the preservation of a democratic form of government.

RASCOE: While some private companies are stepping up to offer their services, like General Motors, Shulman says private industry acting on its own won't be able to get the goods to where they're needed most.

SHULMAN: This is the kind of crisis that has to be met with centralized leadership, only for the duration of the crisis, but absent that, it's just a recipe for chaos.

RASCOE: The White House says it's working with private companies to deliver supplies. The question for New York is, what's on the way?

Ayesha Rascoe, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOUSE ON THE KEYS' "PHASES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.