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On March 18, President Trump declared himself to be a “wartime president,” though he spent much of the coming week downplaying the lethality of the “invisible enemy” at hand. Despite his self-assessment, Trump was late to take advantage of the great arsenal at his disposal by waiting to sign the Defense Production Act until March 27, which allows the president to order companies like General Motors and Ford to build supplies deemed necessary for the nation — in this case, responding to the great deficit of ventilators.
But while Trump continues to tout his wartime leadership and health workers toil on the front lines, he appears more focused on a pettier fight. In his Friday press conference, Trump said he expected the nation’s governors to be more “appreciative” of his efforts and that he told Vice-President Mike Pence not to contact state leaders who have been critical of the administration’s response. “I say, ‘Mike, don’t call the governor of Washington,’” Trump said, referring to Jay Inslee. “You’re wasting your time with him.” (On Sunday, Trump reiterated his attack on Inslee, calling him a “failed presidential candidate” and a “nasty person.”) Of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, he said: “Don’t call the woman in Michigan.” The night before, Trump dismissed New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s requests for more ventilators: “A lot of equipment is being asked for that I don’t think they will need,” he told Sean Hannity. “I have a feeling that a lot of the numbers that are being said in some areas are just bigger than they are going to be. I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators. You know, you go to major hospitals, sometimes they’ll have two ventilators. And now all of a sudden they’re saying, ‘Can we order 30,000 ventilators?’”
According to the Washington Post, that concerning rhetoric was followed up by a damning lack of action from the administration. As states applied to access from the Strategic National Stockpile — the nation’s emergency supply of masks, drugs, ventilators, and other medical items — some states with Democratic leadership did not get the aid they needed. Then there’s Florida, where Trump resides.
Democratic-leaning Massachusetts, which has had a serious outbreak in Boston, has received 17 percent of the protective gear it requested, according to state leaders. Maine requested a half-million N95 specialized protective masks and received 25,558 — about 5 percent of what it sought. The shipment delivered to Colorado — 49,000 N95 masks, 115,000 surgical masks and other supplies — would be “enough for only one full day of statewide operations,” Rep. Scott R. Tipton (R-Colo.) told the White House in a letter several days ago …
Florida has been an exception in its dealings with the stockpile: The state submitted a request on March 11 for 430,000 surgical masks, 180,000 N95 respirators, 82,000 face shields and 238,000 gloves, among other supplies — and received a shipment with everything three days later, according to figures from the state’s Division of Emergency Management. It received an identical shipment on March 23, according to the division, and is awaiting a third.
Florida — one of the few red states currently managing a significant outbreak — appears to be exempt from Trump’s directions to governors to “get [supplies] yourself” rather than treat the federal government like a “shipping clerk.” Trump, however, contradicted his own advice, according to Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, who said that the federal government was outbidding states for orders of protective equipment. Baker’s frustration was echoed by Governor Whitmer, who said Friday that Michigan hospitals were not receiving shipments of personal protective equipment on time because the federal government was outbidding her state.
The Post report, combined with state anxieties over medical supply pricing, illustrates a concern expressed by the Intelligencer’s Jonathan Chait — that Trump may not treat states he “views as hostile on the same terms as states he views as friendly.”
Though Trump has the resources of the federal government to activate or keep idle, governors haven’t been afraid to push back. When the president suggested on Saturday that he was considering a quarantine of the New York City area, Governor Cuomo said such an action was “illegal” and that if Trump followed through he would sue. (Trump backed down, settling for a CDC travel advisory instead.) In Ohio, Mike DeWine fought and overrode an FDA limit on an Ohio company’s capacity for decontaminating N95 masks. And Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer — whom Trump called a “half-wit” and repeatedly attacked without mentioning her name — has ignored the presidential harassment and stressed the importance of her partnership with FEMA and Vice-President Pence.
Trump isn’t just sparring with governors anymore, either. The president brought his conflict against local authorities to an even smaller level on Sunday, when he blamed individual hospitals for mask shortages: “Where are the masks going?” Trump asked in his daily, overlong press conference regarding the coronavirus. “Are they going out the back door?” he suggested, also accusing hospitals of hoarding ventilators.