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Trump gutted the checks on his power when they were most needed

Analysis: Trump's intervention with the FDA and the lucrative contract awarded to Battelle are the latest exhibits of how and why he sees oversight as a political enemy.
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WASHINGTON — Several weeks ago, President Donald Trump forced the Food and Drug Administration to reverse a safety ruling and clear the way for one of the nation's premier defense contractors to sell, service and operate new machines that reprocess N95 face masks for health care workers.

Within two weeks, Battelle, the company that makes the machines, had a contract from the Pentagon's Defense Logistics Agency to recycle masks for up to 20 uses each at locations across the country. The no-bid deal, ordered up by the White House coronavirus task force, is worth up to $600 million.

But nurses, doctors and scientists who have spoken to NBC News about Battelle's hydrogen peroxide vapor chambers said the process it uses remains unproven over long-term use and using masks cleaned by it more than a couple of times could leave front-line health care workers vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus.

Time may tell whether Trump's intervention benefited health care workers and taxpayers as much as it helped him and the company. But it is already clear how Trump has killed oversight, and how he is taking advantage of its death to help himself politically in a re-election year.

He brazenly steamrolled FDA experts. His special task force in charge of medical supplies, which operates outside the authority of any existing agency, deployed emergency powers to award the Battelle contract without competition or any significant consideration of similar technologies. He has ordered task force members not to testify before Congress for the time being. And, last month, as part of a purge of the inspectors general who would be empowered to investigate aspects of the coronavirus response, he got rid of the Pentagon's top watchdog, who would oversee the deal.

There is effectively no independent oversight of the Battelle deal or others like it.

A president proud of his work and his intentions should welcome the validation of those checks. But Trump has neutralized them at a time when more money is being pumped out of Washington at a faster pace than ever before. Indeed, he just appointed his own legal counsel and senior adviser to oversee stimulus-law spending.

His detractors are horrified by the situation, but his loyalists see his roughshod run over competing power centers as the proper exercise of power by a just president.

Eric Havian, a whistleblower law expert at the law firm of Constantine Cannon, argues that while "temporary trimming of oversight is surely understandable" during a crisis, whistleblowers offer a "supplement to the government's oversight."

Under another president, that might work. But Trump canned the intelligence community inspector general who bucked him by backing a whistleblower during the Ukraine scandal. He has trashed whistleblowers who have come forward publicly. Those actions and others have made clear there will be brutal consequences for anyone in the administration who questions him.

The lack of oversight means voters will have less information by which to judge the president when they go to the polls. Trump surely understands that.

When he stepped in to help the company, he was desperate to show he was taking action after a slow-footed response to the disease's arrival in the United States. He was on the wrong end of a daily brawl with governors of both parties who pleaded for the federal government to provide supplies to their states amid harrowing shortages. Politically, he needed to first quiet a bipartisan chorus of criticism and then change its tune.

On March 29, the day after the FDA gave the company partial clearance to use its mask-recycling system, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican whose state houses the company's headquarters, got on the phone to complain to Trump. The language of the waiver prevented Battelle from deploying the machines outside its headquarters and limited the number of masks it could service in a day.

After talking to DeWine, Trump pressured FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn to change the waiver, and it was done within hours. The three men applauded one another publicly. An FDA spokesperson told NBC News this week that the decision was based on "new information" but did not respond when asked if that information was scientific or political.

The political value of delivering for DeWine and Ohio was more clear — it's been 80 years since a winning presidential candidate didn't take the state. The same was true for Trump's direction of ventilators to the battleground states of Colorado and Arizona and his careful attention to the equipment needs of potentially decisive Florida.

The FDA waiver was just the start of the story. Within five days, the White House coronavirus task force had agreed to buy 60 machines for $1 million apiece. Five days after that, the task force decided to pay Battelle $413 million to include the cost of operating them, which was required by the FDA waiver.

The task force went ahead with the purchase despite an objection from a Health and Human Services Department expert on federal supply-chain finances, and by May 1 the ceiling on the deal had risen to $600 million, according to the Defense Logistics Agency.

From the perspective of Trump's politics, it doesn't matter whether the machines are as effective as Battelle says they are — or if the cost to taxpayers is justified.

He showed quick action after a delayed response to the virus, granted a lucrative deal to a powerful company in the midst of an economic crisis and turned criticism from a prominent Republican governor in a crucial swing state into praise. He also eased his own burden of trying to acquire new masks.

Over the long term, if nurses working with coronavirus patients get sick, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to prove it was the result of masks degraded as part of the recycling program. The FDA spokesperson told NBC News that the company has reported damage to 94 masks so far, representing less than two-hundredths of a percent of the number decontaminated.

It will also take time to find out whether taxpayers got a good deal for Battelle's work.

But because Trump has effectively gutted oversight of his administration, only voters can hold him accountable if his decisions were bad — or made for the wrong reasons.