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Opinion Save time: Assume Trump is inept and lying

President Trump with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the White House on Friday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump last week told the country he activated the Defense Production Act, which allows the president to retool and redirect factories to make urgently needed equipment and materials in case of emergency.

On March 18, Trump issued an executive order finding, “To ensure that our healthcare system is able to surge capacity and capability to respond to the spread of COVID-19, it is critical that all health and medical resources needed to respond to the spread of COVID-19 are properly distributed to the Nation’s healthcare system and others that need them most at this time.” The order declared that "health and medical resources needed to respond to the spread of COVID-19, including personal protective equipment and ventilators” as well as additional resources could be identified by the secretary of Health and Human Services.

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One problem: He set no goal for the production of materials, ordered no factories to be converted and set up no new distribution system so states would not have to fight one another for scarce equipment.

Appearing on ABC’s “This Week” FEMA Administrator Peter T. Gaynor had this exchange:

MARTHA RADDATZ: We know you’re working hard. The task force announced yesterday that 600 million N-95 masks to protect health-care workers have now been ordered. But no one on that task force, not the president, not the vice president, not you, could answer the question, “When will they be ready for use?” … So can you tell us this morning when those masks will be distributed and how many?
GAYNOR: They have been distributed. They’ve been distributed over the past couple weeks. They’re shipping today. They’ll ship tomorrow. We find more and more masks to ship because we have [been] developing great partnerships with the commercial sector out there, through donations, ramping up production.
So, again, they have been shipping. We are trying to focus those shipments on the most critical hot spots in the country, places like New York City, Washington state, California. That is our priorities.
RADDATZ: But will the health-care systems there be overwhelmed before masks get there?
I know you've been shipping some masks, but these 600 million ordered are very important and critical at this point.
RADDATZ: Will they get them in time, before the health system is overwhelmed?
GAYNOR: Again, they’re shipping today. They’ve shipped yesterday. They’re shipped tomorrow. And I think one of the things…
RADDATZ: When you say "they," what do you mean? How many? Which masks, the new masks?
GAYNOR: Well, I mean, there’s hundreds of thousands of — millions of things that we’re shipping from the stockpile. I mean, I can’t give you the details about what every single state or what every single city’s doing. But I’m telling you that we are shipping from our national stockpile. We’re shipping from vendors. We’re shipping from donations. It is happening. …
RADDATZ: How many masks were in the strategic stockpile? You said you're shipping from the stockpile. Have all those masks been distributed? And if not, why not?
GAYNOR: Again, there are still supplies in the stockpile. We are shipping all those supplies to all the demands, all the asks from all the governors every day. We’re prepared to go to zero in the stockpile to meet demand.
Again, this is a whole of government effort. And if I could just, you know, and this is shared responsibility. I know the president, Dr. [Anthony S.] Fauci talked about testing. You know, if you don’t need a test, if you don’t have symptoms, please don’t get a test. Because the demand for PPE on unnecessary testing is something that’s working against us.
So we're all in it together. Every American has a role to play. And we ask you, if you need to get a test and you have symptoms, go get it. If you just want to test to make yourself feel better, please don't do that.
RADDATZ: I just want one more time on these masks. You say you’re shipping them out where they’re needed first. You’ve still got some in the stockpile. I wonder why that stockpile hasn’t been depleted. Have you seen the urgent pleas from health-care workers?
GAYNOR: We have. I have talked to our governors. I have talked to emergency managers. We've gotten updates through the task force. I am well aware of the high demand for these items.
RADDATZ: But, again, so why haven’t those been shipped to those urgent care facilities? If you have those masks in the stockpile as you say you have, and they’re shipped, why weren’t they shipped before — which really goes back to my original question — how are we in such bad shape at this point, in terms of supplies?
GAYNOR: Yeah, so, again, like I said in the beginning, you know, my focus is today, right? Filling all the demands that have been in the queue, filling the demands that we get today, tomorrow and through the next month, to make sure that we find, connect the supply with the demand and meet that need.

On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Gaynor conceded that the act had not been invoked. The administration seems to be husbanding its powers rather than leading by directing a massive, national effort. (“I think that to demonstrate that we can use it, the president can use it any time,” Gaynor said.)

Democratic Party lawyer Marc Elias says states and Congress need to act now to ensure all votes count during the general election. These changes are overdue. (Video: The Washington Post)

This is inexcusable. He clearly has no idea how many masks we have and how many have been shipped. He has no idea when current needs can be met. He was followed on “This Week” by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D). He said bluntly, “We are desperate for more PPE equipment, personal protective equipment. We’ve had a big ask into the strategic stockpile in the White House. They’ve given us a fraction of our ask.”

Likewise, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) at his Sunday news conference made clear the states are having to compete with one another to find resources. The federal government must take the lead role. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland echoed that on “Meet the Press”:

I can tell you that we’ve been talking with and meeting with all the governors, with the vice president, occasionally with the president, with all the senior team almost every single day, talking about the need. And I believe we’ve pushed for action and we are getting some progress. Now, it’s not nearly enough. It’s not fast enough. We’re way behind the curve. But let’s talk about, you know, we’re trying to figure out what we can do to move forward. And they are making progress. It’s not fast enough. But on all of those things. On respirators, on PPEs, on the masks, on the tests. You know, we’re ramping up. … But yet, of course, it’s not enough. And failures were made and things … should’ve happened sooner.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) was blunt in his appearance on CNN:

TAPPER: That seems kind of a weird way to do it, though, doesn't it, I mean, you competing with Governor Newsom of California, competing with Governor Cuomo of New York?
I mean, that doesn’t seem like a very efficient way to — and, not to mention, thrifty way to get these supplies to the states as soon as possible.
PRITZKER: That's correct. We're all competing against each other.
This should have been a coordinated effort by the federal government. And the national defense authorization that the president has to essentially push this manufacturing really hasn't gone into effect in any way.
And, so, yes, we’re competing against each other. We’re competing against other countries. It’s a Wild West, I would say, out there. And, indeed, we’re overpaying, I would say, for PPE because of that competition.

This is a chaotic, dangerous situation that is entirely unnecessary. The Defense Production Act is designed to prevent the Wild West scenario and shortages.

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Former homeland security secretary Jeh Johnson explained, “You cannot have a bidding war between one state and another over ventilators, the very medical device we use to cling to life. And so I hope the FEMA administrator has the authority he needs to prevent that and to actually enforce a proper allocation of, of medical supplies and resources.” He added, “The role of the federal government in a crisis like this is to not answer the question about how long schools are going to be out. That is a question for state and local authorities to enforce social distancing. The role of the federal government in a national crisis like this is actually to be the shipping clerk.” In short, Trump has no idea what his role is, provides no incentive for his administration to take the lead and, in fact, seems to prefer shoving off national obligations onto others.

Former vice president Joe Biden appropriately blasted the administration. “He is still failing, even this morning: despite telling the American people that he was using the Defense Production Act to bring the full force of our government to protect our doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals and get them the devices that they need to save Americans in hospitals who are literally struggling to breathe, his lead emergency management official says it is not true,” Biden said in a written statement. “Hospitals, mayors, and governors are forced to fend for themselves to secure the gear and equipment they need. … Mr. President, stop lying and start acting. Use the full extent of your authorities, now, to ensure that we are producing all essential goods and delivering them where they need to go.” He added, “President Trump’s dithering on preparing us for this global pandemic and his lies about his response to this dangerous crisis is one of the most unjustifiable failures of presidential leadership in American history.”

We should commend businesses that are engaged in voluntary efforts to provide medical supplies. However, what is being done is plainly insufficient. At a time we need federal leadership to direct production and take over distribution, Trump is AWOL. What he said was being done is not really being done. What he “hears” — there is no mask shortage — is blatantly false.

If a captain on a ship froze in the middle of a crisis, he would be relieved of command. If a CEO routinely dispensed false information and was incapable of getting into the weeds to rescue his company from a disaster, he would be fired. By any definition, Trump is failing, caring more about creating a Chinese boogeyman to blame than in competently addressing the problem before him.

This is not simply a matter of assigning blame for having left us unprepared and allowing precious time to slip by. This goes to Trump’s ongoing inability to competently manage the federal government. The Post reports that “the growing gulf between the White House and officials on the front lines of the pandemic underscored concerns in cities, states and Congress that Trump does not have a coherent or ready plan to mobilize private and public entities to confront a crisis that could soon push the nation’s health-care system to the brink of collapse.” In short, lives will be lost because no one can tell Trump he is wrong and making things worse.

Read more:

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Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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