Donald Trump has invoked the Defence Production Act to fight coronavirus but what does that mean?
With US coronavirus cases rising higher than 10,000, President Donald Trump embraced a new tone and course of action this week, calling himself a “wartime president” and invoking special powers designed for times of combat.
What exactly is he proposing to do? And will it make a difference?
Let’s dig into it.
What’s going on?
On Wednesday (local time), Trump signed an executive order invoking the Defence Production Act (DPA).
The 1950s law allows the President to prioritise government manufacturing contracts and direct companies to produce certain goods in the name of national security.
In this case, those goods would include surgical masks, protective gear, disinfectant and other medical equipment.
According to reports from US media, the supply shortage is so drastic that dozens of health workers have fallen ill while treating COVID-19 patients and some facilities may close entirely.
Doctors are using sports goggles and bandanas, or even sewing their own masks.
Twitter @ChrisMoriates My wife is seriously over here sewing me surgical masks in anticipation of us running out at the hospital at some point❤️ #COVID19
One surgeon described the situation as being “at war with no ammo”.
So how will the Act be enforced?
At this point, it’s still not entirely clear.
Trump initially implied the DPA would not be enforced at all, tweeting that it was only for “a future worst-case scenario” and told governors it was their responsibility to obtain supplies.
Tweet @realDonaldTrump I only signed the Defense Production Act to combat the Chinese Virus should we need to invoke it in a worst case scenario in the future. Hopefully there will be no need, but we are all in this TOGETHER!
Two days later, he said he put the act “into gear” by asking “a lot of companies” to shift production, but implied the companies complied voluntarily.
He named auto manufacturer General Motors as one business that would start producing ventilators, but declined to elaborate.
“We’re being besieged in a beautiful way by companies who want to create this stuff,” Trump said.
“When we need something, we will use the Act.”
The DPA involves more than just manufacturing
While the Act was initially designed for stockpiling Cold War weapons, it’s been invoked often in recent years for a range of emergencies.
The Trump Administration used the Act in 2017 to restore power and distribute food after devastating hurricanes.
For now, the White House has only signalled intentions for Title 1 of the law, which gives contracts from the Departments of Defence and Homeland Security priority over private contracts.
Jerry McGinn, who oversaw the DPA for several years while serving in the Department of the Defence, said there were several other ways the DPA could be invoked and enforced to tackle coronavirus.
“This is the kind of situation that the DPA was made for,” Mr McGinn said. “It’s a heavy authority.”
The President could use loans or other financial incentives to boost production.
He could block foreign contracts or mergers that he felt were a threat to national security, or he could rebuild parts of supply chains that have been cut off due to global inactivity.
At its most extreme, the DPA could be used to nationalise entire industries or enable the Department of Defence to take over civilian aircraft, but Mr McGinn said those sorts of moves would be highly controversial at this stage.
“Given the way things are, companies are already falling over each other to help. I don’t think all the authority is necessarily needed,” he said.
“If they do decide to do something really big, like nationalise an industry, it’d require close coordination between the White House and Congress.”
Trump has already enlisted the military to fight the virus
The day before the President signed the DPA, Defence Secretary Mark Esper said the Pentagon would provide 5 million N95 respirator masks and 2,000 ventilators.
He also assigned 16 department labs to process civilian COVID-19 tests and dispatched Navy hospital ships to New York and California to house patients and assist workers.
The Defence Department is also prepared to build and staff field hospitals to treat trauma patients, freeing up beds for COVID-19 patients.
On the state level, thousands of members of the National Guard have been assisting with the response and 450,000 members are waiting in the wings.
“They’re putting up anything they can,” Mr McGinn said.
“It’s kinda an all-American struggle against a faceless enemy.”
Private companies, too, were working closely with the White House well before the DPA was invoked.
Big-name stores like Target, Walmart and CVS have been facilitating drive-thru testing clinics.
Trump also said the Carnival Cruise Company had offered its ships as offshore housing for patients.
What’s been the reaction to all this?
The US Health Secretary started discussing the DPA in late February. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden called for Trump to use the Act in the last debate. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer phoned the White House repeatedly over the matter.
But the President has been broadly criticised since his announcement.
Some described his invocation of the DPA as a political move. The US has a long tradition of re-electing war time presidents and the Trump camp appears unified in amping up the combat and patriotic rhetoric.
Meanwhile, doctors fear the production isn’t happening fast enough.
The Department of Health and Human services estimated the US would need 3.5 billion surgical masks to fight a pandemic.
The American College of Emergency Physicians is calling for Trump to tap into the Strategic National Stockpile, a warehouse stocked with critical medical supplies.
Though the details of the stockpile are kept secret for national security purposes, experts estimate it contains roughly 12 million N95 masks and 30 million surgical masks.
Washington state has received thousands of masks from the stockpile, but officials say the shipment was far less than what they had requested.