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Levin writes: "The president is more concerned with keeping big business happy than keeping Americans alive."

Medical staff treat a patient infected by the coronavirus at a Red Cross hospital. (photo: AFP)
Medical staff treat a patient infected by the coronavirus at a Red Cross hospital. (photo: AFP)

Trump Won't Order Vital Coronavirus Supplies Because Corporate CEOs Asked Him Not To

By Bess Levin, Vanity Fair

24 March 20

They’re worried it could be bad for business.

ne of the most mind-boggling aspects of the coronavirus crisis in America is the fact that one of the wealthiest countries in the world doesn’t have the basic medical supplies necessary to deal with the situation. In addition to a lack of beds, hospitals across the nation have nowhere near the number of ventilators and masks doctors require to both do their jobs and protect themselves. While governors have pleaded with Donald Trump to help them obtain such equipment, he’s literally told them they’re on their own, seemingly forgetting the fact that he’s the one with the power here. For instance, Andrew Cuomo can’t invoke the Defense Production Act, which allows the federal government to take some control of the private sector to ensure production of materials relevant to national defense, but Trump can. And yet he’s chosen not to. Why? Because corporate CEOs don’t like the idea, and the president is more concerned with keeping big business happy than keeping Americans alive.

Yes, according to the New York Times, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and heads of major corporations have “lobbied the administration against using the act,” arguing that it could impose “red tape” on companies at a time when they need the government out of their hair. Unsurprisingly, free market die-hard Larry Kudlow, i.e., Trump’s never-right National Economic Council director, was “persuaded” by such arguments, as was Trump’s not-very-bright son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Instead the Trump Brain Trust has insisted that it can just convince businesses to help bridge the shortfall of vital medical supplies without making a formal demand, an initiative that thus far has had predictable results:

The government has essentially thrown out its existing playbook for dealing with pandemics, seizing the issue from the Department of Health and Human Services and moving it to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But it is far from clear that the effort to enlist companies like General Motors, Apple, and Hanes, just a few of the firms that have promised to free up existing supplies of masks or repurpose 3D printers to produce ventilator parts, constitutes an effective strategy.

In interviews with participants in the process, from business executives to government officials, there is still widespread confusion about how much and what exactly each firm is supposed to produce. Corporate executives say they face a bewildering number of requests from dozens of nations around the world, along with governors and mayors around the country, for scarce supplies. The White House has not said who will set the priority list for deliveries. And it is not clear that any of it will arrive in time for the cities and the states that are hit the hardest, including New York.

Administration officials, asked why they have been reluctant to use the full force of the Defense Production Act to press industry into action, say the country is not in such dire straits. There is plenty of volunteer cooperation, they say, and there is always the implicit threat of ordering mandatory measures if they do not. Mr. Trump, at the news briefing, suggested an ideological concern as well. “We’re a country not based on nationalizing our business,” he said.

During that briefing on Sunday, White House economic adviser Peter Navarro told reporters, “We’re getting what we need without putting the heavy hand of government down.” Navarro, you may recall, is the West Wing’s resident China crackpot whom Kushner hired after finding him on Amazon, and who attempts to sway government policy by issuing memos under a pen name. That’s the kind of expertise that’s led to, among other things, the production of basically worthless underwear masks:

Anderson Warlick, the chief executive of the textile company Parkdale Mills, said Mr. Navarro had called him early last week to ask what the company could make. By Saturday, Parkdale Mills joined Hanes, Fruit of the Loom, and other companies in announcing a coalition to produce masks. But they are not the kind hospitals most need. The new masks will be made of a three-ply underwear fabric, and do not provide the level of protection given by the N95 masks that health care workers need for intubation and other procedures.

While the corporate announcements, like Apple’s move to donate millions of masks, may have generated some positive headlines for the Trump administration, critics say the ad hoc approach is falling far short of the challenge. Industry executives say companies are reluctant to crank up production lines without purchasing guarantees from the government. With the economy in free-fall and factories shuttering around the country, few manufacturers are eager to invest in new machinery or venture into new products.

On Sunday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, among others, issued a public plea for Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act, saying, “We cannot wait until people start really dying in large numbers to start production, especially of more complicated equipment like ventilators and hospital beds.”

Of course it’s in no way surprising that Trump would prioritize the needs and desires of big business over matters of life and death, which would explain why he’s already ready to let people get out in the world and spread the virus further in an effort to shore up the economy:

Update: In a statement, Neil Bradley, Executive Vice President and Chief Policy Officer, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said: “The Defense Production Act isn’t a magic wand to immediately solve medical supply shortages. It can’t produce highly specialized manufacturing equipment overnight. It can’t convert a refrigerator factory into a ventilator factory.

The proponents of invoking the Defense Production Act have not identified what problem exists that this law can solve. What is it that businesses are not already doing that the Defense Production Act would compel them to do? The fact is American companies are working around the clock to support our country’s response to the pandemic. Companies that have the necessary expertise and infrastructure are working closely with all levels of government to get the products to those who need them most. A variety of manufacturers have risen to the task and suggested that their equipment can be reconfigured to produce medical equipment. The real challenge is that we need to produce sophisticated products that can’t easily be made without the right specialty equipment, which may not be readily available.

The Defense Production Act was designed for defense industry products with a single supplier, often with purely domestic production chains. Invoking the law may do more harm than good in sectors such as pharmaceuticals and medical equipment because it creates uncertainty and confusion for the companies now working day and night to make these needed supplies.

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