War Stories

Trump’s Half-Hearted Declaration of War on the Coronavirus

The Defense Production Act can help us prepare for what’s to come—but only if we really use it.

Donald Trump points.
President Donald Trump takes questions during a briefing on the novel coronavirus at the White House on Friday.
Jim Watson/Getty Images

Has President Donald Trump declared war on the coronavirus, or hasn’t he? It’s not entirely clear.

On Wednesday, Trump took what seemed to be bold action. Likening the fight against the coronavirus to a war against invaders, he invoked the Defense Production Act, a 70-year-old law that allows the commander in chief to order U.S. factories to produce goods in the national interest.

But then, a few hours later, Trump tweeted that he’d brought up the Defense Production Act only “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!”

It was if Winston Churchill, in 1940, had bellowed, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills”—then added, “But, ahem, not just yet, the Nazis are miles away, I can barely see them in my binoculars, maybe they’ll turn around at the last minute.”

In reality, the “worst case scenario” is upon us, and the only way to avoid it is to prepare for its onslaught. Health professionals say we need millions of respirators, medical masks, surgical gowns, and other equipment—to protect doctors, nurses, and emergency workers as well as the rest of us—if the infection spreads as widely and quickly as historical data suggests.

Someone seems to have stressed these facts more strenuously in the past 48 hours, for on Friday, Trump announced that he had now put the Defense Production Act “into gear.” He made the same declaration, earlier in the day, in a phone call to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has been urging him to use the act for some time.

However, it is still unclear whether Trump has taken the steps needed to follow up a mere announcement—notably the drafting of orders and contracts, and the disbursement of money, to accelerate the actual production of equipment.

President Harry Truman signed the act in 1950 as the Korean War got underway. American society had demobilized from a war footing in the five years since the end of World War II; factories had converted from military to civilian production, and there was great concern that they wouldn’t be able to gin up quickly enough to provide U.S. troops with enough weapons and supplies.

In 1953, after the armistice was signed, Congress repealed some of the act’s more stringent provisions: the authority to requisition material and facilities, to ration consumer goods, to fix wages and prices, and to force the settlement of labor disputes. However, the other provisions are still intact: the authority to demand that companies prioritize defense-related products; to provide incentives to develop, modernize and expand capacity; and to exempt from antitrust suits all industries that volunteer to cooperate.

This relaxation of the law’s more authoritarian tendencies makes it all the more necessary for a president invoking the law to get ahead of the crisis, as he would need to negotiate with several Cabinet secretaries—the secretaries of defense, commerce, and treasury—as well as with industry leaders.

Presidents since Truman have invoked the act for less monumental purposes than the current crisis. In the 1970s, it enabled the financially ailing Chrysler Corporation to continue building the Army’s M1 Abrams tanks. In 2001, Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush invoked it to ensure that shippers continued to provide electrical and natural gas equipment to California during an energy crisis. In 2003, Bush ordered the priority supply of GPS receivers to British soldiers in Iraq. President Barack Obama invoked it to speed up the development of several high-technology defense products.

Trump has discussed the scope of the coronavirus crisis and the need for expanded production with senators, industry leaders, and some of his Cabinet secretaries, but until Friday, he’d done little more than that. With Friday’s discussion, it’s likely that agreements will be struck, contracts signed, and production accelerated at some point, though how quickly is unknown. The fact that he could have put this “in gear” weeks ago—the fact that he stopped short of doing so on Wednesday, even as he invoked the Defense Production Act—tells the basic, tragic story.

The country is ready to forge an assault on the virus—scientists know what’s needed, governors are doing what they can, the federal government has the authority to do much more—but there is no sense of urgency, no sign of leadership, at the top.