It was a telling moment in the rising tensions between the Trump White House and state governors desperate for medical equipment to deal with the exploding coronavirus crisis.
At Thursday’s briefing on how the government is responding, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner scolded states for not building up their own stockpiles, saying that the “the notion of the federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be our stockpile, it’s not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use.”
Earlier Thursday, President Donald Trump had tweeted, “Some have insatiable appetites & are never satisfied (politics?) Remember, we are a backup for them. The complainers should… have been stocked up and ready long before this crisis hit.”
But the national stockpile actually is intended for states’ use, which was clearly explained on the government’s own website — until the language was changed, without explanation, hours after Kushner provided his inaccurate description.
Until Friday morning, the website of the Department of Health and Human Services, which maintains the stockpile, read, “When state, local, tribal, and territorial responders request federal assistance to support their response efforts, the stockpile ensures that the right medicines and supplies get to those who need them most during an emergency.”
But midday Friday, hours after Kushner directly contradicted the language on the HHS website, the text was changed without explanation. Retroactively matching what Kushner said, the website no longer says states can rely on the stockpile, but now says it exists to “supplement” them.
“The Strategic National Stockpile’s role is to supplement state and local supplies during public health emergencies,” the website read on Friday afternoon. “Many states have products stockpiled, as well. The supplies, medicines, and devices for life-saving care contained in the stockpile can be used as a short-term stopgap buffer when the immediate supply of adequate amounts of these materials may not be immediately available.”
With a diminished stockpile of medical supplies and governors warning of a Wild West-like bidding process for ventilators, President Trump has refused to take a larger role in helping states hit hard by the novel coronavirus outbreak, instead making states compete for much of the supplies on the open market — and insisting they are to blame for any shortfalls.
Leaving no one official in charge of the all-encompassing process of assessing need, production, allocation and distribution, Trump has resisted calls from across the country to have the federal government harness its unique ability to take the lead, pushing responsibility onto state governors and arguing they are to blame — not him — for equipment shortfalls.
“We’re a backup,” Trump said Thursday. “We’re not an ordering clerk.”
A bipartisan chorus of governors, former officials and experts have said the federal government can and must take the lead, though — saying only it can harness the strength of American manufacturing and make sure materials get to the right states at the right times and at a reasonable rate.
The president on Wednesday acknowledged that the government’s emergency supply of medical equipment, the Strategic National Stockpile, was nearly depleted, just as states like New York and Louisiana warn their hospitals may be days or weeks away from running out of ventilators, medical masks, surgical gowns and other essential supplies.
While the Federal Emergency Management Agency has sought to jumpstart the production of critical gear, governors have said its involvement has only made the bidding process for ventilators worse, jacking up the prices as states and the federal government compete for a limited supply.
Sometimes, they say, they have found themselves losing out on contracts to the federal government.
On Thursday, the Navy officer running FEMA’s supply chain task force said that he was mainly focused on ensuring the flow of the gear to the commercial market — rather than mandating it be allocated to states and localities based on need.
In effect, the federal government has left it up to hospitals and state governments to compete for masks, surgical gowns and more, a key complaint of governors across the country.
“I’m not here to disrupt a supply chain,” Rear Adm. John Polowczyk told reporters at the White house. “We are bringing product in, they are filling orders for hospitals, nursing homes, like normal. I am putting volume into that system.”
FEMA said in a statement earlier this week that it had always assumed the Strategic National Stockpile “alone could not fulfull (sic.) all requirements” and that “the federal government will exhaust all means to identify and attain (sic.) medical and other supplies needed to combat the virus.”
The agency said Thursday it was “expediting movement of critical supplies from the global market to medical distributors in various locations across the United States,” citing half a dozen flights bringing personal protective equipment across the country so far.
FEMA said “varying quantities” of the gear would go to “medical distributors in areas of greatest need,” with the rest “infused into the broader U.S. supply chain.” It said priority would be given to hospitals, health care facilities and nursing homes, but did not explain how that would work.
The agency said that as of Thursday, it had delivered or was in the process of shipping 8,100 ventilators, 11.6 million N-95 respirators and a host of other equipment across the country. It did not provide detailed information on exactly where or when it distributed the supplies.
The federal government, though, has so far not prevented domestic manufacturers of critical medical supplies from shipping that gear abroad. FEMA told ABC News this week it had “not actively encouraged or discouraged U.S. companies from exporting overseas.”
On Thursday, Trump’s top trade adviser, Peter Navarro, said that on Friday, the federal government would issue an order that would “empower Customs and Border Protection, with the help of people like the post office and express mail consignors like UPS, to basically deal with that issue.” He did not provide more details.
Meanwhile, Trump had until last week largely resisted using the Korean War-era Defense Production Act, which would allow him to set prices and order companies to sign contracts, previously only threatening its use.
Trump last week said he would use the act to compel General Motors to produce ventilators, and on Thursday he said he would use it to help more manufacturers produce ventilators. He nor the White House have provided exact details on how it would be employed.
Trump also used the act on Thursday to compel the conglomerate 3M, a major producer of N-95 respirator masks, to prioritize orders from FEMA. The company said Friday the federal government had “requested that 3M cease exporting respirators that we currently manufacture in the United States to the Canadian and Latin American markets.”
Pushing back, 3M said that doing so could lead to retaliation from other countries — decreasing the total supply of masks available to the United States — and noted there were “significant humanitarian implications of ceasing respirator supplies to healthcare workers in Canada and Latin America, where we are a critical supplier of respirators.”
The president last week appointed Navarro to lead procurement using the Defense Production Act, but Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday that Navarro was not the right person for the job and that a military general should take the lead.
Trump on Thursday morning rejected that he needed to change anything, saying that a “military man,” Polowczyk, was already involved.
“Somebody please explain to Cryin’ Chuck Schumer that we do have a military man in charge of distributing goods, a very talented Admiral, in fact. New York has gotten far more than any other State, including hospitals & a hospital ship, but no matter what, always complaining,” Trump tweeted .
But with Navarro in charge of implementing the Defense Production Act, Polowczyk heading up the supply chain task force and Vice President Mike Pence running a presidential coronavirus task force — not to mention other heavily involved officials, like Kushner — responsibility is diffuse across the administration.
No one person has been put in charge of every step, from assessing current capacity and need to overseeing a national production strategy, coordinating with states and hospitals, and ensuring distribution.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is running for the Democratic nomination for president, on Tuesday called on Trump to appoint a former general or someone else in the administration “who is used to organizing massive efforts” to lead the charge.
“Consolidating all of this into one person makes sense,” Michael Posner, a former assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the Obama administration, told ABC News.
“I can’t think of any group that is better than the most senior military leaders,” said Posner, who now directs the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “This is what they do. This is what they’ve done, and they’ve done it in real time and in difficult circumstances.”
ABC News’ Anne Flaherty, Eric Strauss, Megan Hughes and Molly Nagel contributed reporting.