WASHINGTON – After days of pleading from the nation’s governors, President Donald Trump took steps Friday to expand the federal government’s role in helping produce critically needed supplies to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet the president rejected any criticism for the federal government's response to a ballooning public health crisis that a month ago he predicted would be over by now.
“We have done a hell of a job," Trump told reporters Friday, as he sent an ominous message to state and local leaders who have been urging the federal government to do more to save lives.
“If they don’t treat you right, I don't call,” Trump said, shortly after telling reporters: “I want them to be appreciative.”
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But after days of saying such a move was not needed, Trump on Friday signed an order aimed at compelling General Motors to prioritize the production of ventilators under the Defense Production Act. Hours earlier, Trump had taken issue with the very idea that states would need an influx of the machines.
One month after predicting the U.S. was days away from being “close to zero” coronavirus cases, Trump in recent days had increasingly tried to shift the blame to state and local leaders as the spread tops more than 100,000 cases nationwide.
He lashed out at governors, continued to diminish the risk posed by the virus and insisted that the federal government was only a “backup” as he looked to avoid political costs from a pandemic that has reshaped his presidency and tested his reelection plans.
In a Thursday night interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Trump declared that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee “should be doing more” and “shouldn't be relying on the federal government.” He dismissed New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s requests for additional ventilators to keep patients alive, saying, “I don't believe you need 40,000 or 30,000” of the devices, which force air into the lungs of those too sick to breathe. And he said he was still weighing Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's request for a disaster declaration, saying, “We've had a big problem with the young, a woman governor from, you know who I'm talking about, from Michigan.”
“You know," he added from the White House, "we don't like to see the complaints.”
The administration's mantra, frequently articulated by Vice President Mike Pence, has long been that the fight against the virus must be “locally executed, state managed, and federally supported.”
But Trump appeared to show little empathy for the states' predicament, with his emphasis skewed toward the "locally executed" portion of that trifecta.
At the same time, governors’ complaints about federal support have been mounting as state leaders grow more open to airing their frustrations, despite the perceived risks. They had faulted Trump’s refusal to use the DPA to force companies to manufacture critical supplies and his insistence that it should be up to states to purchase things like masks and testing agents on the open market. That has forced states to compete both against one another and the federal government, driving up prices, even as federal officials have pledged their help if states fail.
Whitmer, in particular, has criticized the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic –- including on national cable TV shows -- saying that the federal government should do more and that Michigan’s allotment of medical supplies from the national stockpile is meager.
“It’s very distressing,” the Democratic governor told radio station WWJ. “I observed early on, like a lot of governors on both sides of the aisle, that the federal preparation was concerning. That apparently struck a nerve, and I’ve been uniquely singled out despite my voice not being the only one that observed that," she said.
“I don’t go into personal attacks. I don’t have time for that,” she said. "I need partnership out of the federal government. We have to be all hands on deck here.”
Cuomo has also been on the forefront, some days criticizing the administration's failure to act and at other times commending federal assistance. But the New York Democrat has remained clear that the state, which is now the epicenter of the crisis, needs many more ventilators than it has at the ready.
"That's what the data and the science said,” Cuomo said Friday as he defended his ask for additional ventilators and issued a new request to Washington for an additional 41,000 beds in temporary hospitals.
Trump has repeatedly referred to himself as a “wartime president” — and now Cuomo and others have called on the federal government to act like it's a war.
“What is unclear to me is why the federal administration refuses to direct industries to manufacture critical PPE,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, said Wednesday, referring to personal protective equipment. “I’m not exaggerating when I say this outrageous lack of action will result in lost lives. Including those of our health care workers.”
Inslee, also a Democrat, tweeted: “We need a national mobilization of the industrial base in this country. That's how we won WWII. To get that, we need a president to lead. Washingtonians' lives depend on it.”
Even as Trump has publicly doubted the need for a massive increase in ventilators, the White House has been working behind the scenes to get more of them manufactured. Disagreements burst into the open Friday when Trump lashed out at General Motors and its CEO on Twitter, alleging that the company promised to build thousands more breathing machines than it can deliver.
“As usual with ‘this’ General Motors, things just never seem to work out,” Trump wrote, adding that the company promised 40,000 ventilators quickly but now says it will build only 6,000 in late April and at a high price. He said they should reopen a now-closed factory in Lordstown, Ohio — even though that factory has been sold.
The White House later announced that Trump had signed the order aimed at forcing the company to accept and prioritize federal contracts to produce ventilators. He also named trade adviser Peter Navarro to lead the government's production effort.
“Today’s action will help ensure the quick production of ventilators that will save American lives,” he said in a statement.
Trump also authorized Defense Secretary Mark Esper to call up an unspecified number of federal reservists to help with the coronavirus response.
He said in a letter to Congress on Friday that he had authorized Esper to order units and individual members of the Selected Reserve, as well as certain Individual Ready Reserve members, to active duty. They are separate from, and in addition to, National Guard members who have been mobilized by state governors.
The reserve call-up likely is intended to fill gaps in medical expertise as the military deploys field hospitals to cities hard hit by COVID-19 and provides other forms of medical support to state and local authorities.
Pence, meanwhile, skirted the question of whether responsibility for the outbreak should be borne by the state or federal government in an interview with CNBC.
“I think it’s a responsibility of all of us at every level to bring our very best science, our very best recommendations, our very best counsel to the American people, and to American businesses,” he said Friday.