On Friday, Donald Trump—after weeks of pleas from governors, mayors, and state and local health officials over the ongoing coronavirus pandemic—continued to toy around with whether he would invoke the Defense Production Act, which allows the federal government to command private businesses to work on projects critical to the security of the nation.
Of course, the threat only came as alarming ventilator shortages were becoming apparent in hard-hit places like New York and a scandal was breaking that this cheapskate was holding up production on cost concerns. On Thursday, the New York Times reported that Trump officials working to have private companies voluntarily build ventilators had balked at a General Motors and Ventec Life Systems price tag of over $1 billion. The Times wrote that the two companies’ promise of up to 80,000 respirators in the long run and 20,000 on short order had shrunk to 7,500 on the shorter time frame, but that administration officials had actually fretted about the “possibility of ordering too many ventilators, leaving them with an expensive surplus.”
As the Times noted, the deal in question would have totaled $1.5 billion, around $18,000 per ventilator, far below what the MIT Technology Review reported is a typical price of $30,000.
That’s right. In the middle of a national crisis, the White House hemmed and hawed over a $1.5 billion price tag (a pittance on the U.S. federal government scale) because of the possibility they might go slightly overboard on saving potentially thousands of lives. Trump had previously asserted that a deal was on the table, but in an ominous sign, on Thursday he took to Fox News host Sean Hannity’s show to proclaim he didn’t “believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators. You go into major hospitals sometimes, and they’ll have two ventilators. And now all of a sudden they’re saying, ‘Can we order 30,000 ventilators?’”
Hence the frantic backtrack on Friday, when Trump vented about the high price tag of the General Motors debacle: “... things just never seem to work out. They said they were going to give us 40,000 much needed Ventilators, ‘very quickly’. Now they are saying it will only be 6000, in late April, and they want top dollar. Always a mess with Mary B. Invoke ‘P’.”
“General Motors MUST immediately open their stupidly abandoned Lordstown plant in Ohio, or some other plant, and START MAKING VENTILATORS, NOW!!!!!!” the president tweeted. “FORD, GET GOING ON VENTILATORS, FAST!!!!!!”
In a follow-up tweet, Trump clarified that “Invoke ‘P’ means Defense Production Act!”
Note that Trump issued an executive order earlier this month officially invoking Defense Production Act powers to deal with the pandemic, but he has refused to actually do anything with those powers because he thinks that would somehow constitute socialism. It’s not clear whether his tweets on Friday meant that he is finally going to do so, or whether he is just trying to deflect criticism while simultaneously throwing a temper tantrum. Odds are pretty good on the latter.
Also note that the coronavirus relief bill recently passed by Congress contains about $2 trillion in spending, or approximately 1,333 times the cost of the ventilator deal.
In a later tweet, Trump—or an aide who had successfully wrestled away his phone, it’s not always clear which—claimed, “We have just purchased many Ventilators from some wonderful companies. Names and numbers will be announced later today!” As of early Friday afternoon, the New York Times reported over 85,700 cases of the virus across the country, with at least 1,275 deaths.
Update: 3/27/2020 at 6:20 p.m. ET: Trump has, in fact, finally ordered Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to use any of the powers under the Defense Production Act to compel GM to “accept, perform, and prioritize Federal contracts for ventilators,” per CNN.
“Our negotiations with GM regarding its ability to supply ventilators have been productive, but our fight against the virus is too urgent to allow the give-and-take of the contracting process to continue to run its normal course,” the White House said in a statement. “GM was wasting time. Today’s action will help ensure the quick production of ventilators that will save American lives.”
Hmm. One might point out, again, that Trump only invoked the Defense Production Act on March 18, weeks after Azar initially floated the idea and after significant political pressure had built up, and then refused to use its authority until now. But of course, the delays are anybody else’s fault.