Trump remains inexplicably passive about Defense Production Act

The good news is, Trump this week invoked the Defense Production Act. The bad news is, he's reluctant to actually use his authority under the law.
Image: An employee of Hamilton Medical AG tests a ventilator at a plant in Domat/Ems
An employee of Hamilton Medical AG tests a ventilator at a plant in Domat/Ems, Switzerland on March 18, 2020.Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters
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By Steve Benen

The federal government could, right now, direct American manufacturers to make the kinds of materials needed to address the coronavirus crisis: ventilators, protective masks, gloves, etc. In fact, there's a law called the Defense Production Act, that authorizes the executive branch to ramp up production of these supplies in order to address a crisis.

The good news is, Donald Trump this week invoked the Defense Production Act. The bad news is, the president is reluctant to actually use his authority under the law.

On Twitter, Trump wrote on Wednesday that he only invoked the law to be used "in a worst case scenario in the future." He added, "Hopefully there will be no need."

The president sounded a similar note at a press briefing yesterday. A reporter asked, "Under what conditions would you put the Defense Production Act into action?" He replied:

"Well, if we were desperately in need of something -- and we, frankly, will know about that very shortly.... If we find that we need something, we will do that."

Broadly speaking, there are two astonishingly big problems with a posture like this. The first is that it takes time to ramp up production of medical equipment. When the president said we'll kick manufacturing into gear "if we find that we need something," he made it sound as if there's a quick turnaround time. The opposite is true, which is why this should've been done weeks ago.

The second problem is that Trump seems wholly unaware of the fact that at facilities across the country, teams are already "desperately in need of" all sorts of things. The Republican's line yesterday made it sound as if the crisis were still on the horizon. As countless medical professionals and hospital administrators will gladly explain, the crisis has already arrived.

The president added yesterday, the Defense Production Act will "help facilitate distribution of essential supplies if necessary."

Newsflash: it's necessary.