Trump issued an order to allow his government to force General Motors to manufacture ventilators, after a breakdown in negotiations with the auto giant caused in part by what aides said was White House indecision, and announced that eight existing ventilator manufacturers, including General Electric and Phillips, had agreed to speed up their production. The president vowed that the efforts would produce a combined 100,000 ventilators over the next 100 days.
Trump’s action — which came on the day the United States recorded more than 100,000 cases of the novel coronavirus, surpassing every other nation — represented an about-face after the president on Thursday largely dismissed the outcry for ventilators.
Trump said he believed that governors whose states were experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases were inflating their needs. And the president said state leaders ought to be fending for themselves and effectively shamed them for seeking federal help, even though he declared a national emergency two weeks ago and has described himself as a “wartime president.”
This week’s quarrel among leaders in Washington and besieged states over supplies and the federal government’s willingness and ability to marshal emergency resources reached a fever pitch as Trump sought to politicize and personalize the fight for medical supplies, as he has with many other aspects of his management of the pandemic.
Trump, asked what more he wants from governors in states such as Washington and Michigan who have been publicly critical of the federal response, said he expects appreciation from governors who receive federal help.
“Very simple, I want them to be appreciative,” Trump said at a Friday evening news conference. “I don’t want them to say things that aren’t true. I want them to be appreciative. We’ve done a great job.”
Trump added that he wanted that appreciation directed at administration officials, like Vice President Pence, as well as federal agencies more than himself.
The president criticized Democratic governors Jay Inslee of Washington and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, whom he called “the woman in Michigan,” and said he had instructed Pence not to call them because they were not sufficiently complimentary of him and his administration.
“You know what I say? If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call,” Trump said, allowing that Pence has a different standard of leadership and continues to communicate with Inslee and Whitmer.
Trump sought to avoid blame for the shortage of ventilators, personal protective equipment and other supplies at hospitals. He has repeatedly targeted Inslee and Witmer, as well as New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) in recent days — all three of whom have criticized the federal response. And he derided GM’s chief executive, Mary T. Barra, for her management of the company.
Trump often reacts impulsively to his portrayal in the media, and he awoke Friday to a batch of tough headlines at the end of a week full of them.
In New York, the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States, Cuomo’s pleas for federal help grew louder by the day this week. On Thursday, the governor excoriated the Trump administration for its slow engagement to help address the supply shortage. Cuomo said New York needed 30,000 ventilators, while the Federal Emergency Management Agency had provided roughly 4,000.
Calling into his friend Sean Hannity’s show Thursday night on Fox News Channel, Trump cast doubt on New York’s needs.
“Governor Cuomo and others that say we want, you know, 30,000 of them — 30,000,” Trump said. “All right. Think of this. You know, you go to hospitals, they’ll have one in a hospital. And now all of a sudden everybody’s asking for these vast numbers.”
The president added, “A lot of equipment’s being asked for that I don’t think they’ll need.”
Cuomo said Friday that every credible projection shows New York needing between 30,000 and 40,000 ventilators once the outbreak reaches its peak.
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” Cuomo said at a news conference. “Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion. But I don’t operate here on opinion. I operate on facts and on data and on numbers and on projections.”
He added: “I hope we don’t need 30,000 ventilators. I hope some natural weather change happens overnight and kills the virus globally. . . . [But] the numbers say you may need 30,000.”
Still, Trump countered Friday evening, “I think their estimates are high.”
Trump claimed in a tweet Friday that ventilators sent by the federal government to New York had been discovered in storage. “N.Y. must distribute NOW!” the president wrote, apparently reacting to a report that morning on cable news. Trump later quipped, “They didn’t know they got them.”
Cuomo addressed the report, saying the state has been purposefully stockpiling new ventilators so they can quickly be distributed to hospitals whenever needed.
Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff, defense secretary and CIA director under Democratic presidents, said these governors are in a difficult position because of their disagreements with Trump about the severity of the pandemic and how to mitigate it.
“Normally, if the president were a different commander in chief, he and the governors would all be speaking the same language,” Panetta said. “Both governors and the president would be putting pressure on those who need to produce. But they aren’t.”
At the White House, Trump announced Friday that trade adviser Peter Navarro would serve as national policy coordinator for the Defense Production Act, working with various companies on supply lines.
Navarro, a fierce protectionist and China hawk, is a Trump loyalist dating to the 2016 campaign and has clashed sharply with administration officials who serve as conduits to the corporate world, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow.
Administration officials this week negotiated with GM and other companies about transforming their manufacturing plants to produce ventilators on short order.
As talks with GM advanced, there were concerns in the administration that the ventilators would take too long to build and might not be received by hospitals until after the peak of the outbreak had largely subsided, according to a White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail internal discussions.
The first GM ventilators would not be finished until the end of April, and it would take until the summer to reach a pace of more than 10,000 a month, with the capability of building 20,000 a month later in the year, according to a person familiar with the plans who was not authorized to discuss the arrangement on the record.
This person said it takes time to get a factory online because the company would have to buy parts, hire hundreds of employees and train them on the process of building complicated machines.
“You’re starting totally from scratch,” this person said.
Thinking the deal was done, GM had planned to announce earlier this week that, together with Ventec Life Systems, it would begin ventilator production in a GM plant in Kokomo, Ind., but waited on the White House, this person said. The plan was announced Friday.
“Ventec, GM and our supply base have been working around the clock for over a week to meet this urgent need,” GM said in a statement. “Our commitment to build Ventec’s high-quality critical care ventilator, VOCSN, has never wavered.”
Trump offered a different account of the breakdown in talks. He told reporters Friday that he has long had an unfavorable view of GM because of its outsourcing of some manufacturing operations over the years, as well as its closure last year of a plant in Lordstown, Ohio.
Eventually, Trump said, ventilator talks with GM “got to be a debate over cost.” He added, “We’re not looking to be ripped off on price.”
“We didn’t want to play games with them,” Trump said.
On Twitter, Trump was even harsher in his assessment.
“General Motors MUST immediately open their stupidly abandoned Lordstown plant in Ohio, or some other plant, and START MAKING VENTILATORS, NOW!!!!!!” he tweeted. In another tweet, Trump wrote, “Always a mess with Mary B.,” referring to Barra, GM’s chief executive.
Colby Itkowitz and John Wagner contributed to this report.