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The country needs medical supplies. Will Trump compel companies to make them?

President Trump has urged doctors and nurses to wash and reuse whatever masks they already own and blamed the equipment shortage on the “crazy” global market.
President Trump has urged doctors and nurses to wash and reuse whatever masks they already own and blamed the equipment shortage on the “crazy” global market.MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Trump ran as a “builder” who would reopen America’s shuttered factories and preside over a manufacturing renaissance. But weeks after desperate governors have begged his administration for masks and ventilators to fight the coronavirus outbreak, Trump still appears hesitant to use the powers of his office to compel manufacturers to produce them.

Instead, Trump has urged doctors and nurses to wash and reuse whatever masks they already own and blamed the shortage on the “crazy” global market for equipment right now.

“We are helping the states to get equipment, but it is not easy,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday.

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Last week, Trump issued an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act, a Cold War-era law that allows presidents to force companies to produce scarce goods in times of crisis or war. But so far, he has not used it to compel the mass manufacturing of masks, gloves, gowns, and other sorely needed medical supplies. That has baffled lawmakers of both parties and angered medical professionals who face dangerous shortages of personal protective equipment.

“A lot more health care workers are going to be sick or not be able to help on the front lines,” said Julie Pinkham, the executive director of the Massachusetts Nurses Association. If more personal protective equipment can’t be obtained, she said, “We’re going to see deaths that could have been avoided.”

Trump said Tuesday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is already distributing millions of masks and other equipment. He claimed the threat of the Defense Production Act is working without him having to utilize it.

“It’s called leverage,” he told reporters. “The threat of it being there is great leverage."

But Trump’s confidence was unlikely to allay the concerns of state and local leaders and hospital workers who say they are already rationing supplies.

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At the epicenter of the epidemic in New York, a frustrated Governor Andrew Cuomo asked the federal government to use the Defense Production Act now to meet the state’s immediate need for 30,000 ventilators. “If we don’t have the ventilator in 14 days, it does us no good,” he said. “I do not for the life of me understand the reluctance to use the Defense Production Act.”

Trump has yet to fully explain why he authorized the wartime power last week but then did not fully utilize it. Last weekend, he told reporters he preferred to coax businesses into cooperating with the urgent need for supplies. “The concept of nationalizing our businesses is not a good concept,” he said.

The act does not nationalize businesses, but does require them to produce certain goods for a period of time that the federal government pays for. Earlier in Trump’s term, his administration considered using the same act to shore up the ailing coal industry.

Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts said he called Vice President Mike Pence last week to urge him to convince the president to use the act, making the case that 3.5 billion respirator masks will be needed to outlast the crisis.

“I think the president is afraid of being charged with engaging in socialistic activities, which is of course foolish because we’re at war with an enemy and we can only win if the president takes over as commander in chief,” Markey said.

The administration has sent mixed messages on whether Trump will use the powers he authorized last week. FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor said in an interview on CNN that the administration planned to utilize the act for the first time to acquire 60,000 COVID-19 test kits.

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But when asked about that later on Tuesday, Pence dodged the question, again focusing on voluntary efforts from the private sector.

On Tuesday evening, a FEMA press secretary said Gaynor had not used the wartime act after all, but was able to secure the tests anyway.

Governors have complained that without the federal government taking over the response, they are bidding against other states and the administration itself, driving up the costs of necessary equipment and worsening the crisis.

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker told Trump during a conference call last week that the state had tried to place orders for equipment, but had lost bids to the federal government three different times.

The state has received 750,000 masks, face shields, gowns, and pairs of gloves from the Strategic National Stockpile, with its most recent shipment arriving Monday, and has begun to distribute them.

Massachusetts is also trying to increase manufacturing of masks and other protective equipment on its own. The Baker administration convened a team to find factories in the state that can voluntarily make needed medical supplies. Manufacturers in the state have received detailed online surveys about their size, capabilities, machinery, and inventory.

As states struggle to cope, Trump has shown a larger unwillingness to address the equipment shortage. Last week, he said the federal government’s role was not to be a “shipping clerk” of supplies, and over the weekend he blamed medical providers for not washing and reusing their masks, which is against federal guidelines.

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The administration says tens of millions of masks are now being produced even without the federal government compelling companies to make them. On Tuesday, Ford Motor Co. announced it will make 100,000 plastic face shields and increase capacity of an unstated number of masks.

“He’s fully prepared to use the Defense Production Act,” Pence said on Fox News Tuesday. “But at this point I can tell you that American industry is stepping forward as never before.”

The pro-business US Chamber of Commerce organization has loudly opposed the measure. “The Defense Production Act isn’t a magic wand to immediately solve medical supply shortages,” the group’s executive president Neil Bradley said in a statement. “It can’t convert a refrigerator factory into a ventilator factory.”

But Cuomo and others argue that activating the law’s powers can help states meet their urgent need for equipment as they brace for a wave of coronavirus patients who will need breathing assistance. Cuomo said he’s received just 400 ventilators from the federal government.

”I look at actions, not words,” he said. “Where are the ventilators, where are the gowns, where’s the [personal protective equipment], where are the masks?”

Trump is beginning to face some pressure from his own party. Seven House Republicans signed onto a bipartisan resolution to urge the president to use the act.

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Representative Rodney Davis, a Republican from Illinois, said Trump’s “soft diplomacy” approach appeared to be working, but that the act would give him a stronger hand. “We need them to step up to address the PPE shortage, the equipment shortage for COVID-19 patients like ventilators,” Davis said of manufacturers.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas urged the president to do more to compel production on his podcast. “I don’t want to see doctors having to make a choice of who gets to live and who has to die because they don’t have the equipment to save their lives,” he said.


Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin. Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.