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Despite governors' pleas, Trump questions need for ventilators

Why did the White House balk at a contract for 80,000 ventilators? Perhaps Trump's belief that they're not really needed had something to do with it.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, on March 21, 2020.Patrick Semansky / AP

The New York Times published a hard-to-believe report late yesterday about the Trump administration having "second thoughts" about a contract for ventilators. Later in the evening, however, it started to make more sense.

As the Times' article explained, the White House was prepared to announce a new joint venture this week involving General Motors and Ventec Life Systems, which would produce 80,000 ventilators. Depending on the speed with which the machines could be produced, the deal had the potential to be a life-saver: because so many people who contract the coronavirus experience severe respiratory distress, ventilators are needed to keep patients breathing. It's exactly why so many states are scrambling to buy the equipment.

But the White House announcement didn't happen this week. The administration reportedly stepped back because of the $1 billion price tag.

At first blush, this seemed incomprehensible. If Congress is advancing a $2.2 trillion economic package, why would the White House balk at $1 billion for life-saving medical devices? Soon after, as Donald Trump spoke to Fox News' Sean Hannity in a telephone interview, the answer became clear: the president doesn't think the ventilators are necessary.

"I have a feeling that a lot of the numbers that are being said in some areas are just bigger than they're going to be. I don'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?'"

Note the fact that Trump drew these ridiculous conclusions based on "a feeling," not a policy assessment. The comments came less than a week after the president pointed to the possible use of malaria drugs with no track record of success in combating COVID-19, telling reporters that he has "a feeling" the medications might be effective.

Earlier in the month, he also rejected the World Health Organization's assessment on fatality rates, telling Sean Hannity on March 4, "[T]his is just my hunch."

In last night's interview, Trump went on to emphasize the costs of the machines, adding, "You know, when you talk about ventilators, that's sort of like buying a car. It's a highly -- it's very expensive. It's a very intricate piece of equipment.... And you know, the good ones are very, very expensive."

They're also very, very necessary for patients with compromised lungs.

At that point, Trump went back to complaining about New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's (D) appeals for tens of thousands of ventilators.

Looking ahead, the president signaled a reluctance to act because he simply prefers to hope for positive outcomes. "I don't think that certain things will materialize," he told Hannity. "And you know, a lot of equipment's being asked for that I don't think they'll need."

The host didn't ask about the consequences if the president's rosy assumptions are wrong.