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One of the many oddities of the president’s response to the coronavirus was the reluctance of the “wartime president” to invoke the Defense Production Act, allowing the administration to prioritize contracts with private manufacturers to quickly produce goods deemed necessary for the national interest. Despite calls from governors to do so from the outset of the crisis, Trump only invoked the act on Friday — by which point 100,000 were infected and 1,500 had died from COVID-19 — when he ordered General Motors to begin making ventilators. (It’s unclear how productive that directive was, as GM already announced it would work with a medical supplies company to produce the machines.)
The delay in activating the Korean War-era power is made even more perplexing by a New York Times analysis that found that the Trump administration has used the Defense Production Act reflexively over the past three years to prioritize orders it deemed necessary for national security, from rare earth metals to build lasers to body armor for Border Patrol agents. The Defense Department alone estimates that it uses the law’s powers around 300,000 times every year, while the Department of Homeland Security prioritized 1,000 orders in 2018 for disaster response efforts.
Already, there is one damaging answer explaining Trump’s current reluctance — because the relevant corporations don’t want him to override their business. According to a Times report from last week, “The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the heads of major corporations have lobbied the administration against using the act. They say the move could prove counterproductive, imposing red tape on companies precisely when they need flexibility to deal with closed borders and shuttered factories.” The argument appealed not only to Trump, but to his braintrust of Jared Kushner and Larry “pretty close to airtight” Kudlow.
In the new Times report, there are more concerning justifications for the delay: Sources close to Trump said he considers the law “anti-American” and that invoking the DPA would “make it clear that the government is in charge.” While it may be too late to distance the coronavirus from his administration’s lackluster response, so far the president’s crunch-time stalling hasn’t negatively impacted his approval rating. Trump’s approval is actually up five points, though that’s a blip compared to other leaders navigating economic and public health crises.