Home/Daniel Larison/Trump’s Baffling Lack of Urgency

Trump’s Baffling Lack of Urgency

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The president has had no trouble using the Defense Production Act repeatedly when it comes to building weapons and other items, but when it comes to using it to mass produce ventilators and other essential equipment to cope with the pandemic he drags his feet and makes ridiculous excuses:

Chemicals used to construct military missiles. Materials needed to build drones. Body armor for agents patrolling the southwest border. Equipment for natural disaster response.

A Korean War-era law called the Defense Production Act has been invoked hundreds of thousands of times by President Trump and his administration to ensure the procurement of vital equipment, according to reports submitted to Congress and interviews with former government officials [bold mine-DL].

Yet as governors and members of Congress plead with the president to use the law to force the production of ventilators and other medical equipment to combat the coronavirus pandemic, he has for weeks treated it like a “break the glass” last resort, to be invoked only when all else fails.

“You know, we’re a country not based on nationalizing our business,” Mr. Trump said earlier this month. “Call a person over in Venezuela, ask them how did nationalization of their businesses work out? Not too well.”

The U.S. response has been slow and inadequate every step of the way, and one of the main reasons for this is that the president refuses to use the powers of his office to address emergency needs in a timely fashion. Having falsely declared so many other emergencies to exploit loopholes in the law to do things that had nothing to do with national security, he is evidently unwilling to use his proper authority when it matters most. Trump has shown that he has no problem trampling on the law and the Constitution when there is something that he wants to do, such as arming Saudi Arabia and backing their war on Yemen, but when it would be appropriate to use executive authority in order to protect American lives he becomes curiously timid and reluctant. The president’s references to Venezuela are preposterous. No one is suggesting that the government assume ownership of manufacturing companies, and the law doesn’t do that. The purpose of the law is to give government orders of essential equipment priority in an emergency situation:

The law, which was used frequently by previous administrations as well, does not permit the federal government to assert complete control over a company. The federal government can, however, use it to jump ahead of other clients or issue loans so a company can buy all of the supplies it needs to complete the government’s order by a specific date. A rarely used authority of the law also allows the administration to control the distribution of a company’s products and determine where such materials go.

The Pentagon has long been aggressive in its use of the law, inserting language from the wartime act into contracts to ensure delivery of products by a specific date.

Trump’s frequent uses of the DPA show that he doesn’t even believe his own absurd rhetoric. So what is the explanation for this otherwise baffling dereliction of duty? It seems that the president doesn’t want the responsibility that would come with using this law:

But politics may have also influenced Mr. Trump’s decision. The president has repeatedly tried to deflect responsibility for the most significant crisis on American soil in decades. Using the Defense Production Act would make it clear that the government is in charge.

The president may want to duck responsibility for the crisis happening on his watch, but by abdicating responsibility the president is making the crisis worse than it has to be and in the end he will be bringing even more opprobrium on himself. Even now the president isn’t responding to the pandemic with the urgency and seriousness that is required, and many Americans will die that didn’t have to because of that.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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