Why is it falling to Democrats to beg, cajole and try to force President Trump into taking numerous specific steps he should be taking himself, right now, to avert untold numbers of preventable American deaths?

This question is forced upon us by an appearance by Rep. Elissa Slotkin on “Morning Joe," and by new reporting that suggests we’re only beginning to glimpse the damage Trump’s failures could unleash.

Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat, has introduced a new bill that would compel the president to deploy the Defense Production Act, or DPA, to direct the private sector to produce a range of medical supplies to address looming shortfalls amid the worsening coronavirus crisis.

Trump has invoked this 1950 wartime production measure but has not deployed it. Numerous states and health officials are pleading with him to do so, warning of severe equipment shortages crippling their own responses.

In discussing her bill Wednesday morning, Slotkin made a point that’s more startling than it first appears.

“I under almost no circumstances would recommend the legislative branch forcing the executive branch to enact these powers," Slotkin said. “But the outcry is so strong that it’s pushed us to try and force the president to try to centralize the retooling of our big manufacturers.”

Emphasis mine. The question this raises is: Why must Trump be “forced” into doing this?

Trump’s explanations for refusing to deploy the DPA don’t add up. He and other officials have claimed the private sector is filling the void on its own. Trump insists companies understand that the threat of deploying the DPA gives him “leverage," forcing them to step up.

But as a recent New York Times report documented, many of these executives themselves are locked in “widespread confusion” about who should be producing what for whom, resulting in a “bewildering” lack of coordination. Trump himself recently tweeted that it’s “not easy” to get states equipment they need, because the world market is “crazy.”

Some private-sector groups have lobbied the administration against deploying the DPA, arguing it would be counterproductive when they need flexibility to ramp up. Trump reportedly finds this persuasive.

But as Jonathan Cohn details, even if many companies are ramping up on their own, they are well behind schedule, and it’s now clear federal coordination failures are the reason.

Indeed, if Trump himself is acknowledging it’s a major struggle to get states needed equipment, and if executives themselves are reporting confusion, why wouldn’t Trump want to do all he can to rectify this?

Worse and worse

The problem is truly epic. The Post has a damning report chronicling a “mad scramble for masks, gowns and ventilators” that is “pitting states against each other." Other revelations include:

  • In New York, the epicenter of the crisis, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has secured protective gear only for health workers for a few weeks. The state cannot procure most of the 30,000 ventilators that will be needed to keep hospitalized patients breathing when the crisis peaks.
  • In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) reports progress, but officials are scrambling to ask nail salons and tattoo parlors to donate masks and gloves. Pritzker claims they have run into competition for equipment with other states and even federal agencies — an absurd coordination failure.
  • Executives at health-care providers report severe problems. One has asked the federal government for help for “weeks.” Another claims there has been such a bad “global run” on equipment that he’s not disclosing where he has successfully found equipment.

Many of these officials are pleading with Trump to deploy the DPA, to bring order and coordination before the coming escalation of cases swamps us.

As Aaron Friedberg and Gabriel Schoenfeld outline, deploying DPA would place a range of tools at our disposal. Yet it’s not even clear the administration has done a comprehensive overview of exactly how much new equipment will be needed in coming weeks and what our current capacity is for producing them, let alone developing a plan for expanding that capacity.

This is looking highly suspect

Meanwhile, the latest administration actions demand more scrutiny. On Monday, Peter Gaynor, the administrator for FEMA, told CNN the administration was prepared to employ DPA to marshal production of 60,000 new test kits.

Mr. Trump ... was not aware that FEMA had been directed to use the law, according to an administration official. Later Tuesday, a FEMA spokeswoman said the administration had elected to get the tests from the private sector without using the act.
The spokeswoman, Lizzie Litzow, said in a text message that “at the last minute we were able to procure the test kits from the private market without evoking the DPA.” She said she did not know when those tests would be delivered.

This is strange. Would the FEMA administrator really say this without authorization? Did Trump find out about it and then reverse a crucial decision by his own FEMA official? If so, why?

And how is it that this FEMA spokesperson can claim to have procured these tests without knowing when they’ll be delivered? Have they really been procured?

On another front, Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and other Democrats are now pointing out that the Department of Health and Human Services has some limited authority on its own to procure equipment under the DPA, now that Trump has invoked it. Yet HHS has not carried out basic bureaucratic steps to make this possible.

As those Democrats note, if Trump doesn’t act decisively, our “critical shortages of medical supplies” will “be the difference between life or death for countless Americans.”

Why is it falling to Democrats to try to compel Trump to do everything in his power to save all these lives?

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