Why is Trump putting critical protective equipment on layaway at Walmart?

This week, President Trump announced he’s essentially putting an order for critically needed surgical gowns on layaway at Walmart despite urgent demand.

At a coronavirus task force briefing on Wednesday, Trump said he was placing a “very, very, big” order for gowns with Walmart CEO Doug McMillon. But it turns out that the gowns—which are part of vital personal protective equipment known as PPE—aren’t actually available right now.

A Walmart spokesperson said the company would have to “delve into its sprawling global supply chain to identify a company to make an undisclosed number of gowns.”

Why is the president placing orders through retailers—if they can’t quickly fill such needed requisitions?

The answer is that Trump is touting corporate partnerships in a display that’s more showmanship than substance. And at the same time, he’s refusing to fully invoke a longstanding law, the Defense Production Act (DPA), that could help close serious PPE shortfalls.

If Trump invoked the DPA, key agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) would start issuing federal contracts for all available supplies of PPE, ventilators, and other needed equipment. And they could distribute those supplies to the areas of greatest need.

However, Trump appears to not trust DOD or FEMA to manage production of critically needed medical supplies and equipment. Instead, he’s doling out contracts one at a time—and apparently picking fights with favorite villains, like General Motors CEO Mary Barra

Politics has entered the picture. The president may see maximizing control over the news cycle as a key to his reelection campaign. But that control is thwarting the urgent use of the DPA to ramp up urgently needed supplies.

At one level, this simply reflects the class interests of the wealthy, who, like Trump, have been the most frequent beneficiaries of his policies, such as the 2017 tax cut that will deliver 83% of its benefits to the top 1% of earners within the next decade. Similarly, the Chamber of Commerce has opposed use of the DPA for medical equipment. Their likely rationale? To better to allow Chamber members to hoard and price-gouge scarce medical supplies. As New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo explained: “I will contract with a company for 1,000 masks. They’ll call back 20 minutes later and say the price just went up because they had a better offer.”

The economics of the DPA are straightforward—volume buying is cheaper and more efficient. Rather than having 50 state governors, plus thousands of mayors and hospitals, competing for scarce resources, the purchasing power of the federal government should be used to maximize production and distribution.

Unfortunately, the president has played states against one another, even as thousands have died. He has criticized New York Governor Cuomo for demanding thousands of ventilators, publicly warning states at a recent press briefing against complaining about the shortages, and instructing Vice President Pence not to call governors who are critical of the administration, saying, “I want them to be appreciative.”

The bottom line is that Trump is using the full powers of his office in this crisis as an essential element of his campaign strategy. Thus, Florida, a critical red state, has resisted calls for a statewide shelter-at-home order. Yet it has received all the supplies it has asked for, while Maine has received only 5% of its requests.

Unfortunately, we are just in the first rounds of the coronavirus crisis. Scientists tell us the epidemic is likely to recur for months until a vaccine is produced and the public is inoculated—which may require another 12 to 18 months. This crisis will only deepen before it ends. Another massive relief and reconstruction bill is already under consideration in Washington.

In the next stimulus bill, Congress should require the president to fully invoke the DPA and transfer all authority for its execution to FEMA and DOD. That should be tied to the next trillion-dollar relief bill that Trump will desperately need as his last, best hope for reelection. In the meantime, the nation’s health care workers are suffering because of his layaway strategy.