Trump Resists Pressure to Force Companies to Make Coronavirus Supplies

WASHINGTON — President Trump and his advisers are resisting calls from congressional Democrats and a growing number of governors to use a federal law to mobilize industry to provide badly needed resources to help halt the spread of the coronavirus, days after the president said he would consider using that authority.

The Defense Protection Act grants presidents extraordinary powers to force American industries to produce medical supplies, materials and equipment that health care workers say are in dire shortage in hospitals across the country.

“And it can do a lot of good things if we need it,” Mr. Trump told reporters at the White House on Wednesday.

But some of Mr. Trump’s advisers have privately said they are adhering to longstanding conservative opposition to big government, a view that reflects the administration’s conflicted view of how it should handle a crisis unlike any a modern president has faced.

“First of all, governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work, and they are doing a lot of this work,” Mr. Trump said to reporters on Thursday. “The federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping. You know, we’re not a shipping clerk.”

But there’s a growing chorus of pleas from Democratic lawmakers and governors to use the act to increase production of masks, ventilators and other supplies. And Friday morning, it seemed like they might be getting through.

Senator Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, spoke with the president and urged him to invoke the act, and according to Justin Goodman, the senator’s spokesman, the president “told Schumer he would, and yelled to someone in his office to do it now.”

When asked about his call with Mr. Schumer at a White House briefing early Friday afternoon, Mr. Trump claimed that after invoking the act on Wednesday he had begun using it when the government ordered millions of masks and other supplies.

“We have millions of masks which are coming and will be distributed to the states,” Mr. Trump said. “The act is very good for things like this.”

The president did not say how this was different from the government’s previous efforts to encourage production of masks in partnership with private companies, including Honeywell and 3-M.

Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City, however, spoke for many Democrats.

“We’re talking about a president who is basically doing what Herbert Hoover did at the beginning of the Depression and minimizing the danger and refusing to use available federal action, and people are going to die, and they shouldn’t, they don’t have to, if we could get the support that we’re asking for,” he said in an interview with WNYC on Friday.

Republicans have not been openly critical, but some governors have been explicit in describing their difficulty in depending on the private sector for medical supplies.

In a call held with Mr. Trump at the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters on Thursday, a group of governors stressed to him that they were struggling to address the staggering demand for equipment and supplies.

At one point, Gov. Kristi Noem, Republican of South Dakota, grew frustrated as she expressed to the president and members of the task force that state officials had been working unsuccessfully with private suppliers.

“I need to understand how you’re triaging supplies,” Ms. Noem said. “We, for two weeks, were requesting reagents for our public health lab from C.D.C., who pushed us to private suppliers who kept canceling orders on us. And we kept making requests, placing orders.”

She added: “I don’t want to be less of a priority because we’re a smaller state or less populated.”

Mr. Trump promised her that would “never” happen before Ms. Noem’s telephone line was disconnected.

The Defense Production Act, passed by Congress in 1950 at the outset of the Korean War, granted President Truman the power to spur the production of aluminum, titanium and other needed materials during wartime. Since then, it has been used for both the prevention of terrorism and to prepare for natural disasters.

The act would give the administration the authority to override companies’ existing contracts, and direct supplies to hot spots like New York City or Seattle. It could also help mobilize funds for retooling factories, refitting pharmacy drive-throughs into testing sites, and ramping up production of an eventual vaccine.

This week, as Mr. Trump announced that he was invoking the act should he need it, he referred to himself as “in a sense, a wartime president.”

Yet Mr. Trump has hesitated to take the kind of actions necessary in wartime.

Not all of Mr. Trump’s advisers subscribe to the theory that the federal government should be as hands-off as possible. Some of his aides believe there needs to be a shift toward using the law and have suggested this to the president.

As the threat of the coronavirus has worsened, officials leading the Trump administration’s response have resisted setting priorities in favor of letting private companies determine their own roles, a stance that has confounded Mr. Trump’s critics but which officials say is a small-government approach that the president’s advisers prefer.

But people familiar with the administration’s actions say the administration is still trying to figure how industry supply chains operate, which companies could produce additional products, and what kind of subsidies they may need to offer.

The president’s advisers say they see the role of the federal government as facilitator, as opposed to chief producer and a national governor. They have tried to encourage states to get by with what they can, suggesting there will be support from the federal government but that this shouldn’t be the first option. And they have hoped that private companies will be spurred to increase production by the president’s statements.

“We’re actually encouraged that the partnership with the private-sector can meeting many of these needs,” said Marc Short, the chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, in a discussion with reporters on Friday morning.

In practice, the administration has been trying to use the provision to jawbone companies into taking voluntary action while holding over them the possibility that the federal government would intervene.

“President Trump has made it clear the Defense Production Act will only be used as necessary and so far, the voluntary responses of private enterprise has been beautiful,” Peter Navarro, a top White House trade adviser, said in an interview. “And we expect that to continue.”

The White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Wednesday that General Motors had offered to use its factory space to manufacture ventilators. Writing on Twitter, Tesla founder Elon Musk also offered for his company to make ventilators if there is a shortage.

But Mr. Navarro added that some brokers had been hoarding supplies of masks in warehouses and trying to sell them at exorbitant prices.

“That’s a Defense Production Act action waiting to happen,” he said. “If anybody thinks they’re going to sit on urgently needed supplies and profiteer from this crisis, they’re going to answer to the full force of the Trump administration.”

As reported cases of the virus in the United States soar, the president, who is known to recruit input from a variety of outside advisers, is getting conflicting advice. And an influx of private sector voices with direct access to the president and his top advisers — notably his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner — have added competing insights to an already calamitous process, officials say.

Michael Gold contributed reporting.

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