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Trump’s coronavirus emergency fueling theater


OFriday, March 27, President Donald Trump took what appeared to be a bold and decisive action in the fight against the new coronavirus. Reaching wartime powers under the Defense Production Act, Trump ordered the federal government to “use all authority” to force auto giant General Motors to produce ventilators, vital medical devices including patients and hospitals are struggling desperately to survive the fast. – spread of respiratory diseases related to COVID-19. For good measure, Trump tweeted, “General Motors MUST immediately open its stupidly abandoned Lordstown factory in Ohio, or another factory, and START MAKING FANS, NOW !!!!!! ”

But if Trump’s performance on Friday translated urgency and action, four days later, neither is evident. Despite difficult discussions and the invocation of presidential powers, Trump and his team by noon Tuesday had not yet formally placed a single order for a fan manufactured by GM. While negotiations were underway, they had not set a mandatory deadline for delivery of the machines, or even suggested a voluntary deadline. And they hadn’t informed GM of the prices the federal government will pay for machines under Trump executive order. For its part, GM continued to follow the fan production plan it had discussed with the White House for weeks before Trump’s order, a plan that was already well advanced when he issued it, documents examined by TIME.

The GM episode is just the latest in what has become a common scene spearheaded by Trump during the spread of the pandemic. As the known American cases soared 98 to 177,300 in the past four weeksTrump has made public vocal demonstrations which, in many cases, have yielded few real results. On March 13, he said that Google was building a website to help people find local coronavirus testing sites. So far, it has ended up being little more than a bare-bones, aggregation site with a series of links. That same day, he promised big retailersWalgreens, Walmart and CVSwould deploy driving test sites in their car parks, a concept which also did not fully materialize.

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It is not uncommon for a president to use his position to project optimism and progress in times of crisis. The FDR declared in 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, that America demanded “a daring and persistent experiment” and that if a first effort failed to “admit it frankly and try another”. Trump associates say his efforts spur action and set a positive tone at the top. But Republican and Democratic critics say that Trump’s approach seems to be less focused on solving the life and death problems that COVID-19 imposes on Americans, than on the political challenges that the disease presents to him.

The GM affair in particular brought together several political vulnerabilities for Trump. First, it was in Michigan, a state he barely won in 2016, where Republicans behaved badly midway through 2018 and where Trump is currently following Joe Biden 3 percentage points or more in more than one survey. More generally, Trump’s order came when he was repeatedly criticized for not taking more steps to help states that are in desperate need of help. “They were under a lot of pressure,” said Elissa Slotkin, a representative from Michigan, a former representative from the Department of Defense and the CIA who sponsored bipartisan legislation require the President to implement the DPA to expedite the production and distribution of supplies.

As Trump continues to plan actions and accomplishments, COVID-19 cases continue to escalate, as does the urgency of demand from mayors, governors and leaders around the world for fans. The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 41,650 people worldwide, including more than 3,500 Americans. The sickest people infected have severe inflammation of the lungs, which stiffens them and makes it impossible to breathe without the help of a ventilator. Some of these victims need the device for weeks. Hospital staff are concerned about the shortage of specialized equipment. If the system swells, doctors and nurses worry that they may have to ration health care and decide who lives and who dies. Trump’s medical advisers said on Monday that even if all went well, the death toll in America could reach 240,000.

Some at GM say it is unfair for the president to make the bad guys out of it. “It was like being hit in the stomach,” said a longtime GM employee who was not allowed to speak publicly on the issue. “We did everything in our power to move from building Tahoes to building fans without any guarantee from a federal contract.”

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In all cases, company officials say they are not waiting for directions from the federal government or anyone. GM has reached an agreement with Seattle fan manufacturer Ventec Life Systems and has already started reorganizing a plant to build thousands starting next month. “We don’t expect anyone to dictate how many fans to make,” said Chris Brooks, director of strategy for Ventec. “Our North Star has always been to make as many ventilators as possible, as quickly as possible, to equip front-line health professionals with the tools they need to save lives.”

Work is underway on Monday, March 30, 2020 at the General Motors manufacturing plant in Kokomo, Indiana, where GM and Ventec Life Systems are partnering to produce Ventec VOCSN intensive care ventilators.

Work is underway on Monday, March 30, 2020 at the General Motors manufacturing plant in Kokomo, Indiana, where GM and Ventec Life Systems are partnering to produce Ventec VOCSN intensive care ventilators.

AJ mast for General Motors

GM’s strategy to build the fans started as the company faced its own coronavirus crisis. Like other companies across the country, she predicted a dramatic contraction in demand for her cars as unemployment rose and spending fell nationwide. At the same time, plants had to be temporarily closed to prevent the spread of the virus. On March 17, ten days before the big Trump announcement and the day before GM announced that all of its North American factories were closed due to coronavirus, GM CEO Mary Barra called the advisor White House economic analyst Larry Kudlow to discuss the conversion of plant space for the production of fans.

Kudlow and the White House turned to a new organization of business leaders, called, for help. The group is chaired by former American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault and Rachel Carlson, founder of online education company Guild Education, who volunteered to help the Trump administration exploit private industry. During exploratory phone calls with GM, the group discovered that the automaker needed a medical device manufacturing partner with a reputable product. associated them with Ventec, manufacturer of a device the size of a toaster known by its acronym, VOCSN (for ventilator, oxygen, cough, suction and nebulizer). On March 18, the two companies held initial phone calls to discuss what could be done. The following day, GM chartered a late-night flight and four engineers, including Phil Kienle, manufacturing manager for North America, took off from Detroit for Seattle for face-to-face interviews.

The GM team spent the next three days at Ventec’s headquarters in Bothell, Washington, to examine machines that give life to immobilized people who can’t do it on their own. They looked at plans illustrating where each of the 700 pieces of the device met largely by hand. Images of the parts were provided to a GM purchasing agent to see if the suppliers could reproduce the manual work. “We have literally purchased hundreds of parts and components in just over a week, which equates to lighting speed, and we will begin production in mid-April,” said Gerald Johnson, vice president GM executive for global manufacturing. “From there, production can reach 10,000 or more per month very quickly.”

Next are the workers. GM called 1,000 workers to see if they were ready to work for the company with fans. Greg Wohlford, President of Local 292 of United Auto Workers, who represents the GM shutter factory in Kokomo, Ind., tell the Kokomo Grandstand he was just waiting to hear the details of the training. “It will happen, we are just trying to work out all the details,” he said. “But everyone is delighted. Everyone is really excited. “The new manufacturing space was located in a 2.6 million square foot facility with clean rooms where small electronic components for cars are made. Construction workers started tearing the carpet and knocking down the partitions for make room for additional workstations. Cameras have been installed to document progress.

In total, it took GM less than a week to forge a partnership with Ventec, according to internal communications, travel journals and interviews with officials from the two companies. The companies have produced a full set of manufacturing plans that leverage union labor, industrial purchasing power, and a global chain of 700 suppliers. In the end, the companies said they would be able to produce up to 21,000 fans per month, if necessary.

On March 23, GM and Ventec presented the strategy to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The two companies have provided the administration with a detailed list detailing the number of fans that can be produced, the speed and the cost, depending on the options chosen by the federal government, according to two officials involved in the procurement process.

And then they waited to hear.

Four days later, they got their answer. First, at 11:16 a.m. on March 27, Trump posted a series of tweets detonating GM and Barra. Later, at the White House, he worked out. “We don’t want prices to be double, triple what they should be,” he told reporters. “So General Motors, we’ll see what’s going on, but now they’re talking. But they weren’t talking the right way at first, and that wasn’t the case for the country.” GM backed down in a public statement that the company’s commitment to the Ventec fan project “has never wavered” and “GM is contributing resources at cost.” Officials insisted that nothing had changed in their schedules.

In the days leading up to Trump’s comments, the governors and legislators of the hardest-hit states begged him to use the DPA, little-known law from the Cold War era which allows the president to force companies to accept and prioritize government contracts during natural disasters, terrorist attacks and other emergencies. The supply of respiratory masks, gowns, gloves and other basic protective equipment pushes the country’s front-line medical workers to a breaking point.

Politicians on both sides were convinced that the use of the law could prevent counterproductive auction wars that broke out across the country, as states competed to acquire the same medical supplies from suppliers. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said fans on the market now costs more than $ 50,000, which is a 150% increase from $ 20,000 when his state tried to buy them for the first time.

Trump insisted that invoking the DPA was an undue hardship on the government and that companies were stepping up on their own. But the perception of a weak federal response to the growing crisis is seen as a political responsibility for Trump in the major electoral states, including Ohio and Michigan. On March 26, for example, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, publicly declared that her state was not getting the medical equipment it needed, Trump replied on Twitter that she was “over her head” and that she “has no idea.”

The administration said the Trump spike on March 27 had nothing to do with politics. By invoking the DPA, the president forced GM to “accept, execute and prioritize contracts or orders for the number of fans”. according to the decree. Peter Navarro, Trump’s business advisor and policy coordinator for the DPA, told TIME in a statement that GM’s action was to revive work on the fans. “Before the signing of the DPA order, the GM / Ventec company was in the process of sputtering. Since signing the DPA order, GM has moved into high gear. He is the star child of effective DPA action, ”said Navarro.

Navarro also said that the president’s statement was designed to stimulate competition between different automakers turning to the production of fans. Ford is working with GE Healthcare to increase GE’s production of its own advanced ventilators, although manufacturing details remain unclear. Ford announced Monday he plans to manufacture up to 50,000 small fans, which are authorized by GE, within 100 days at a factory in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Now that GM has been pushed publicly by Trump, Navarro suggests, it will be urgent to sprint to the market first. “Now let’s see which company is rolling out the first hundred fans for its new assembly lines: Ford / GE or GM / Ventec. We expect that in the next 30 days, American lives will be at stake, and the lesson to be learned from GM should be that you can’t reach the finish line until you reach the start line. Now a real race is on. “

Whatever the logic behind Trump’s public statements about GM and his use of emergency powers, the company maintains that Trump’s harsh words did not change anything from the March 23 plan they presented to his government. On Sunday, after his March 27 statements, Trump was asked in the White House how negotiations have been going since he invoked the DPA two days earlier. Although nothing has changed, he replied that the automaker was now doing “fantastic work”.

Write to W.J. Hennigan at [email protected].

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