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Rarely Used Law Allows Trump to Order Mass Production of Masks, Ventilators

FILE - Various N95 respirator masks are seen at a 3M laboratory, in Maplewood, Minnesota, March 4, 2020.
FILE - Various N95 respirator masks are seen at a 3M laboratory, in Maplewood, Minnesota, March 4, 2020.

Responding to growing warnings about a potential shortage of vital medical supplies during the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he would be invoking a rarely used law that allows him to order mass production of supplies in the interest of "national defense."

"I view it ... in a sense as a wartime president," Trump told reporters.

Known as the Defense Production Act, the 1950 law gives the president broad wartime powers, including the ability to order manufacturers to prioritize production of items that are in short supply.

Last week, a group of lawmakers urged Trump to invoke DPA, citing growing demand for such equipment as respirators.

The law was enacted in response to the Korean War, but Congress has since broadened the definition of “national defense,” giving the president powers beyond simply influencing military preparedness, according to the Congressional Research Service.

“The authorities can be used across the federal government to shape the domestic industrial base so that, when called upon, it is capable of providing essential materials and goods needed for the national defense,” the Congressional Research Service said in a recent report.

Previous use

In recent decades, presidents have invoked the law on several occasions. In 2011, President Barack Obama used it to demand information from telecom companies. In 2017, Trump cited it to declare certain aerospace technologies critical to national defense.

Four provisions of the law were allowed to lapse after the Korean War. But three remain in place. They allow the president to:

— Require businesses to prioritize and accept contracts for materials and services as necessary to promote the national defense.

— Use a range of incentives such as loans and loan guarantees to encourage increased production and supply of critical materials and goods.

— Establish voluntary contracts with private companies, block mergers and acquisitions, and create a volunteer pool of private sector executives.

The invocation of the Defense Production Act adds to the sweeping authorities already at Trump’s disposal after he declared a national emergency over the coronavirus pandemic last week.