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Warren wants to know why Pence rejected U.S. goods in COVID fight

Former Democratic presidential candidate says the decision to decline American manufacturing help "likely contributed" to shortages and spread of the disease.
Image: Gary Peters, Elizabeth Warren, Martin Heinrich, Tim Kaine
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., waits to join other Democratic senators on June 4 to commemorate the life of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers.Susan Walsh / AP file

Sen. Elizabeth Warren said Thursday that the Trump administration's failure to prioritize American manufacturing during the initial stages of its COVID-19 response "likely contributed" to the "ongoing spread of the disease."

In a letter sent Thursday to Vice President Mike Pence, and reported first by NBC News, Warren and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., say they want more information about the administration's efforts to acquire goods to respond to the coronavirus crisis. Specifically, they want to know why the administration turned down a January offer from Texas-based Prestige Ameritech to ramp up mask-making capacity.

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Dr. Rick Bright, a whistleblower and former head of the government's biomedical research agency, told lawmakers last month that the company's entreaties — made just as COVID-19 began to appear in the U.S. in late January — were shut down. That's at least in part because the administration wasn't prepared to start ordering personal protective equipment in bulk.

"If these reports are accurate, they indicate that the Trump Administration’s dismissal of an offer from a U.S.-based company to manufacture millions of N95 respirators and its failure to anticipate the immense need for masks has likely contributed to the chronic nationwide shortage of crucial protective equipment and the ongoing spread of the disease," Warren and Schakowsky wrote.

The company ultimately did get a contract in April after publicly complaining that President Donald Trump wasn't putting domestic manufacturers first and then getting a cut-to-the-front-of-the-line introduction to White House aide Peter Navarro from 2016 Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon's team. The White House ordered up a no-bid $9.5 million deal for Prestige Ameritech, according to federal records.

"Together, all the available evidence paints an alarming picture — that the Trump Administration failed to build up and invest in our country’s domestic manufacturing capacity for crucial medical equipment and PPE even when the resources were made available to them," the lawmakers wrote.

Though their letter focuses on Prestige Ameritech, they are asking Pence for more information about what the administration is doing — and can do — to ramp up domestic manufacturing during the coronavirus crisis. For example, they ask Pence to provide "a list of federal government facilities that could be rapidly re-tooled to manufacture [masks] " and other personal protective equipment and supply figures for how many masks and other protective items the administration wants to acquire.

Pence is head of the White House coronavirus task force, which was created in late February.