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Trump invokes the Defense Production Act to address the coronavirus pandemic

Darrell Etherington

During a White House press briefing on Wednesday, President Trump opened remarks by confirming that he has invoked the Defense Production Act, a move that many have called for him to take to help fight the coronavirus pandemic since at least earlier this week. The Act, which was originally enacted in 1950 as a measure during the Cold War, authorizes the president to require that businesses agree to contracts or orders in service of national defense, as well as permitting the president broad powers around requisitioning property, settling any labor disputes, setting wage and price controls and more in service of producing resources needed for national defense purposes.

Part of the reason that this Act is being invoked is to address the U.S.-wide shortages in basic necessities for front-line medical staff, including protective masks, gloves and ventilators. As pointed out by a reporter in the press pool for the White House briefing today, hospitals have been sounding the alarm about the lack of adequate numbers of ventilators for weeks, signaling a pending critical shortage. Reports from this week increasingly point out the worsening situation regarding masks, too -- with medical staff resorting to risky measures like disposable mask re-use and home-made solutions to make do.

"We have targets for masks, you know the masks, the numbers of masks are incredible," Trump said during Wednesday's briefing. "We've ordered millions of them, but we need millions more [...] we've never had to even think in terms of these numbers, but we need millions of masks, and all of that will be ordered. We need respirators, we need ventilators, and that is a big thing because it's a complex piece of equipment. So we have a lot of ventilators, but we're going to be ordering more."

The administration had previously said it would provide specific numbers on how many ventilators are on-hand, and did so again when questioned today. But the best figure that was available immediately was provided by Vice President Mike Pence, who said that there are "in excess of 10,000 ventilators in the stockpile" in terms of strategic reserve, which doesn't take into account the number in hospitals and in the industry at large, according to the VP.

Trump was asked directly by press why it took so long to invoke the Defense Production Act, when it was being called for by experts and other politicians, including at the state level.

"When we have thousands of ventilators, it sounds like a lot, but this is a very unforeseen thing," Trump said, despite the fact that while experts were actually sounding the alarm for quite some time, his tone of urgency is actually only a recent shift in stance in terms of his public remarks. "Nobody ever thought of these numbers, nobody ever saw numbers like this."

Pressed by a reporter again that in fact, we knew for the past many weeks that we needed many more ventilators, Trump conceded that "well, we knew," but qualified that "we'll have to see how it goes," arguing that the numbers reflect worst-case scenarios, and that in practice we could ultimately need fewer than anticipated. However, even earlier this week, a U.S. ventilator maker said that it hadn't even been asked yet to boost production, despite the fact that it was able to do so as much as five-fold.

Invoking the Defense Production Act could have far-reaching consequences for any American company making hardware or devices, since the powers it grants are so broad in terms of what they allow the president to do in order to prioritize production of anything that could provide some kind of help in combating the coronavirus outbreak. For now, that production effort is likely focused on ventilators and masks, but it could expand to include the establishment of temporary emergency healthcare facilities, including makeshift hospitals and clinics along with necessary equipment.

Trump is also authorizing mobilization of two army hospital ships, the Mercy and the Comfort, in the COVID-19 relief effort, and will deploy the Mercy to NYC, while the Comfort, currently docked in San Diego, will go where needed. Both can launch within a week, he said. The Army Corps of Engineers can now also be tapped to provide support in setting up temporary facilities or taking other additional measures.