Ventilators. Masks. Gowns. Gloves. Swabs. Health-care equipment large and small — all lifesaving — is in extremely short supply as American hospitals prepare to be overwhelmed by the coronavirus.

There’s a drastic wartime tool at President Trump’s disposal to force U.S. manufacturers to make this medical equipment, but Trump has been reluctant to enforce the Defense Production Act. He has been so inconsistent in his public statements on it that it’s hard to tell whether it’s in use even when his own FEMA director says it is.

On Tuesday, FEMA administrator Peter Gaynor said part of the law is being used to get states 60,000 test kits. But The Post’s Aaron Gregg has reported that that’s nothing new.

Around the same time Tuesday morning as his FEMA chief spoke to CNN, Trump tweeted the act is “in full force,” but that the federal government is not forcing manufacturers such as automakers to start making medical equipment. His reasoning: Private companies are doing this on their own. But there’s confusion even among the Trump administration whether this is happening. CNN reports that White House officials were caught off guard by FEMA’s announcement that the act was being used to make test kits.

Let’s explain why this act matters so much.

The Defense Production Act would allow Trump to push U.S. manufacturers such as automakers and clothing companies to pivot to making medical equipment for hospitals and medical workers who say they are out of equipment, or will be soon, to treat the expected onslaught of coronavirus patients. He could also organize what equipment goes where.

Governors, Democrats in Congress and some Senate Republicans have been urging Trump for at least a week to invoke the act, and his potential 2020 opponent, Joe Biden, came out in favor of it, too.

Trump has given a variety of reasons for not doing so, including:

  • It’s for a “worst-case scenario.”
  • Governors should be finding ways to have U.S. companies make ventilators.
  • U.S. companies are doing it anyway. “GM, Ford — so many companies — I had three calls directly — without having to institute ‘You will do this,’ these companies are doing that right now,” Trump said Sunday.

But governors and even some Senate Republicans are telling him that the federal government has the best leverage for purchasing power. They worry they are overpaying and that companies won’t be able to prioritize orders from states without help from the federal government.

“It’s like the wild West” trying to compete with states for supplies, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) told CNN on Sunday.

Trump has somewhat perplexingly maintained it’s a state issue. “Governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work,” he said on Thursday. On Saturday, when asked why his administration hadn’t spent weeks or months trying to build up a supply of medical equipment despite knowing ahead of time coronavirus posed a serious threat, Trump blamed past presidents. “Many administrations preceded me,” he said. “For the most part they did very little with regard to what you’re talking about.”

It looks like Trump almost put the act into motion under pressure from Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Friday said he had a call with Trump about, among other things, invoking the act. Their conversation about the act went like this, according to a Schumer spokesman:

Schumer urged [Trump] to immediately invoke the Defense Production Act to get ventilators & other important medical equipment to those who need it — [Trump] told Schumer he would, and then [Trump] yelled to someone in his office to do it now.

But that went nowhere. And on Sunday, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) introduced legislation to require Trump to enact this and to put in a major purchase order of 300 million masks and do a survey of what other medical equipment needs to get made.

Congress approved the act in 1950 during the Korean War to help the government stock up on wartime materials such as aluminum and copper, doubling production at that time, according to a 1982 congressional Research Service report. Other presidents have used it to beef up the U.S. defense industry, especially during the Cold War.

The act would allow the president to more or less force U.S. manufacturers to build medical equipment for hospitals. It accomplishes this in a few ways, according to a congressional Research Service report:

  • Trump could require U.S. manufacturers that already make ventilators to prioritize federal government contracts for supplies over, say, Europe, which is increasing its requests. (The United Kingdom has asked its top private manufacturers to start making ventilators.)
  • Trump could require U.S. manufacturers to make more face masks and other “critical materials and goods” and offer loans or promises to buy these things. The federal government could then decide which hospitals should get this equipment.
  • Trump could block proposed or pending foreign corporate mergers that threaten national security. That seems less of a concern with the coronavirus, where global cooperation is necessary.
  • Trump also could have companies “employ persons of outstanding experience and ability and to establish a volunteer pool of industry executives who could be called to government service in the interest of the national defense.” That could turn a company such as Tesla, which primarily makes cars, into one that focuses more on ventilators. CEO Elon Musk said on Twitter his company would be willing to do it. General Motors could also get involved. Trump has also mentioned the clothing company Hanes as an option.

Over the decades, presidents have used this act for strategies large (such as building up wartime materials during the Korean War or Cold War) and small (such as spurring innovation in the defense industry).

If Trump did invoke the Defense Production Act to have U.S. companies make health-care equipment, it would be one of the most dramatic uses of the act in decades. Trump apparently isn’t ready to go down in the history books that way yet.

President Trump said his administration will use the Defense Production Act to produce protective gear in a news conference on March 18. (The Washington Post)

Alice Crites contributed to this report.