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Column: If Trump alone can fix our coronavirus crisis, then why the hell hasn't he?

Robin Abcarian
President Trump has shown reluctance to invoke the Defense Production Act in combating COVID-19.  (Associated Press)

In 2016, as Donald Trump accepted the Republican presidential nomination, he said the “system” was broken. “I alone can fix it,” he darkly proclaimed.

At the time, his dictatorial demeanor chilled me to the bone.

But you know what’s crazy?

Now that we’re facing a problem that he alone really can fix, he has totally whiffed.

The mighty blowhard in the Oval Office has once again revealed himself to care more about the stock market, his flagging company businesses and his own reelection than the health of the American people.

Let me explain.

For decades, presidents have had the ability to invoke a Korean War-era law, the Defense Production Act. The act would have allowed Trump weeks ago to order manufacturers to create desperately needed medical supplies — including things as simple as masks and gloves or as sophisticated as ventilators — and use the massive logistical power of the American military to assist in the task.

And though he has declared himself a “wartime president,” he has yet to act like one. He waited until Friday to invoke the Defense Production Act, and still only in a limited way, saying he will use it to ensure General Motors begins making and prioritizes production of much-needed ventilators. But what took him so long, and what about the range of other things needed in the fight?

And when the federal government has belatedly gotten involved, it has dithered, as we saw last week when a venture between General Motors and Ventec Life Systems to produce ventilators appeared to be falling apart. “The only thing missing,” reported the New York Times, “was clarity from the government about how many ventilators they needed — and who would be paid to build them.”

So instead of being able to make a grand announcement about the joint venture days ago, the president on Thursday picked a fight with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has requested 30,000 ventilators.

“I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators,” Trump told Sean Hannity. “You know, you go into major hospitals, sometimes they’ll have two ventilators. And now, all of a sudden, they’re saying, ‘Can we order 30,000 ventilators?'”

Yes, you very stable genius, that’s exactly what they are saying!

By Friday morning, it seemed, Trump realized the predicted ventilator shortage was not a hoax. He angrily tweeted insults at GM and its CEO Mary Barra for seeming to backtrack on the number of ventilators the company predicted it could turn out, warning that he might have to invoke the Defense Production Act, but not immediately doing it.

"They said they were going to give us 40,000 much needed Ventilators, 'very quickly,'" Trump tweeted. "Now they are saying it will only be 6000, in late April, and they want top dollar. Always a mess with Mary B."

It took a barrage of criticism for Trump to finally sign the memorandum requiring GM to “accept, perform and prioritize” federal contracts for the government contracts for production of ventilators.

Always a mess with you, too, sir.

In the absence of a full-throated government response to the shortages of personal protective equipment, or PPE, citizens have stepped in to fill the void. My friend Dayle has been sitting at her sewing machine in Santa Monica turning out face masks for the Million Mask Project. UCLA engineers are working with doctors to make face shields with 3-D printers. They never should have had to do these things in the first place.

“What could have happened from the moment this virus was first discovered is the federal government could have moved swiftly and silently to prepare us," said Max Brooks, the apocalyptic novelist whose deep research for his novels has left him with a lot of well-informed thoughts on disaster planning. “And while that may not have stopped the virus from coming to the country, it would have stopped the panic.”

Brooks, 47, author of “The Zombie Survival Guide,” and “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War,” is intimately familiar with the federal government’s granular planning for emergency situations such as the one that now faces us.

Brooks, the son of Mel Brooks and the late Anne Bancroft, became something of an internet sensation last week when he posted a video urging younger people to get serious about social distancing. "If I get the coronavirus, I'll probably be OK," says Brooks, in his father’s garden, as his 93-year-old father looks on through a plate-glass window. "But if I give it to him, he could give it to Carl Reiner, who could give it to Dick Van Dyke and, before I know it, I've wiped out a whole generation of comedic legends.” The video, appropriately enough, has gone viral.

When I reached Brooks Thursday afternoon, he was at home in Venice with his wife and teenage son, studying a 2017 Department of Homeland Security document with the unwieldy title, “Biological Incident Annex to the Response and Recovery Federal Interagency Operational Plans.” The annex is part of the National Response Framework, which lays out in excruciating detail how the federal government should respond to a “biological incident,” such as the virus that causes COVID-19, which, as of Friday, has afflicted nearly 86,000 Americans and killed at least 1,275.

“On Page 31, on line 15, it literally says the goal is to support PPE needs, which involves utilization of the Defense Production Act,” said Brooks. “It’s right here in the plan, studied by state, local and federal agencies. They have been trained for this. They are ready to go.”

So what could account for Trump’s reluctance to pull this powerful lever with real force?

Why has he allowed states, counties and cities to fend for themselves, and to find themselves bidding against each other for crucial equipment?

“I don’t know whether it’s sheer incompetence, whether it’s ideology,” said Brooks. “But this is why we have big government. It is literally in our Constitution to provide for the ‘common defense.’ This is not a state-by-state fight; it’s a national fight. It would be like responding to Pearl Harbor by letting Hawaii deal with it.”

Though China was not transparent with its own citizens when the novel coronavirus was first discovered, it reported the discovery to the World Health Organization on Dec. 31.

On Jan. 12, the WHO announced that China had shared the genetic sequence, “which will be of great importance for other countries to use in developing specific diagnostic kits.”

“What could have happened from the moment the virus was first discovered is the federal government could have moved swiftly and silently to prepare us,” said Brooks. “And while that may not have stopped the virus from coming to our country, it would have stopped the panic.”

Instead, Trump spent January and February downplaying the danger.

“One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear,” he said on Feb. 27.

He had a chance to be the miracle worker he believes himself to be.

And he blew it.