Donald Trump Did Nothing to Stop the Export of Respirator Masks

David Becker/ZUMA

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The 3M mask story keeps getting weirder, and neither 3M nor the Trump administration seems eager to provide details of exactly what their dispute is about. However, it’s been widely reported that 280 million masks were sold overseas in a single day last month even though American health care workers were desperate for them. This number originates from a Forbes story by David DiSalvo, who spent a day in mid-March with a mask broker named Remington Schmidt:

When contacting potential buyers, Remington needs two things to secure a deal with a seller: a letter of intent to purchase and proof of funds. “If you are working with a seller who has masks but you can’t quickly show proof of funds, someone else is going to buy them,” he told me.

And I watched that happen repeatedly throughout the day. Buyers from state procurement departments and hospital systems expressed desperate need for masks, but the deals bogged down when it came to providing proof that they could commit and follow through. In the meantime, another buyer provided proof of funds and the masks were gone, sometimes within the hour.

By the end of the day, roughly 280 million masks¹ from warehouses around the U.S. had been purchased by foreign buyers and were earmarked to leave the country, according to the broker — and that was in one day. To his knowledge none of the masks had been purchased by buyers in the U.S.

Remington told me that his focus now is to try to sell masks to federal agencies like FEMA, responsible for securing PPE so the items can go directly to the states that will distribute to hospitals, but it’s been challenging to close a deal and the number of “middle men” in the negotiations keeps rising.

Somebody please stop me if I’m wrong, but halting these shipments didn’t require use of the Defense Procurement Act. It required two things: (a) an executive order banning the export of masks unless approved by federal authorities² and (b) purchasing authority for FEMA to buy as many masks as it wants. You could add to that guidance from FEMA about which items US companies should and shouldn’t export overseas. These are things President Trump could have done two weeks ago with a stroke of his pen. No new legislative authority would have been required.

So unless I’m missing something, this is all on Trump. 3M has no control over the secondary market. Only Trump does. But apparently he did nothing back when it mattered, and now that it’s too late he’s engaged in a war to make it look like someone else’s fault. That’s typical Trump for you.

Eventually I assume we’ll get more details of exactly what’s going on here. If my take on this is wrong, I’ll update.

¹FWIW, this sounds high. But the precise number doesn’t really matter.

²This is, obviously, not something that states can do. Only the federal government can do it.

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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