WASHINGTON -- When President Donald Trump invoked emergency war powers last week to fight the coronavirus outbreak, many were hopeful that the federal government would take charge in addressing the nation's dire shortage of ventilators, protective masks and other critical gear for patients and medical staff.
But Trump has not made actual use of the powers granted in the Korean War-era law known as the Defense Production Act, even though state governors, health experts and lawmakers of his own party have appealed to the administration to employ that authority to bulk up production of medical equipment and supplies, and just as critically, to ensure that they're distributed to areas of most urgent need.
Trump's reluctance to take a more assertive role -- instead forcing states to fend for themselves and bid against one another -- has created confusion and competition. And it has at times tied the hands of his own administration officials designated to lead the White House response to the pandemic.
The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Peter Gaynor, said Tuesday that he was using the DPA's allocation provision to procure about 60,000 coronavirus test kits and to take control over their distribution. He said it was the first time such a step had been taken in the battle against the coronavirus.
But later in the day, Trump seemed to disavow the actual use of the law. And by Tuesday night, a FEMA's press secretary, Lizzie Litzow, issued a statement saying, "At the last minute we were able to procure the test kits from the private market without evoking the DPA."
Among its provisions, the act authorizes the government to ensure that its orders for critical material get first priority from producers. While the DPA does not empower the government to take ownership of companies, it was used during the Korean War to regulate production and prices of some vital materials produced by private companies. Proponents of the act want Trump to use it now to direct factories to ramp up production of needed medical supplies and to prevent price-gouging.
Trump last week gave formal notification that he was prepared to use the law, designating ventilators and personal protective equipment as necessary, but he has since insisted his administration has not needed to use the full weight of the law, saying he didn't want to nationalize American businesses.
"Private companies are heeding our call to produce medical equipment and supplies because they know that we will not hesitate to invoke the DPA in order to get them to do what they have to do.," Trump said at a coronavirus briefing Tuesday.
"It's called leverage. You don't have to use it. ... But the threat of it being there is great leverage, and companies are doing as we ask. ... They're coming through and they're calling us."
The status of the 60,000 test kits -- a fraction of what's needed -- was unclear. Gaynor did not identify the company or companies from which FEMA was buying the kits. But he told CNN early Tuesday -- before the about-face -- that FEMA would be using the law "for the first time today ... to get our hands on" those kits to allocate them where they're most needed.