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Slammed By Trump, 3M Says N95 Mask Exports From U.S. Should Continue

A key maker of N95 respirator masks, 3M, is arguing against a Trump administration request to keep U.S.-made masks in the domestic market, saying the policy could backfire by triggering retaliation. Trump signed a Defense Production Act order Thursday specifically aimed at requiring 3M to prioritize orders from the U.S. government.

The president and others have criticized 3M, with some officials saying it allows or even encourages profiteering during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thursday's presidential order directs Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Pete Gaynor to "use any and all authority available under the Act to acquire, from any appropriate subsidiary or affiliate of 3M Company, the number of N-95 respirators that the Administrator determines to be appropriate."

The company responded publicly Friday morning, defending its efforts by saying the company and its employees "have gone above and beyond to manufacture as many N95 respirators as possible for the U.S. market."

According to 3M, it has already been cooperating with the Trump administration and is also investigating reports of price gouging and black markets for the N95 respirators, which are in extremely high demand. Doctors at some hospitals are reporting being told not to wear N95 masks — because then everyone on the staff would want one.

The company says it looks forward to working with FEMA. But in a statement posted to its website, it also resisted the Trump administration's call to stop exporting U.S.-made masks to Canada and Latin America.

"There are, however, significant humanitarian implications of ceasing respirator supplies to healthcare workers in Canada and Latin America, where we are a critical supplier of respirators," 3M said.

Stopping the export of respirators, the company added, would also likely cause retaliation.

"If that were to occur, the net number of respirators being made available to the United States would actually decrease," 3M said. "That is the opposite of what we and the Administration, on behalf of the American people, both seek."

The statement comes after Trump said on Twitter, "We hit 3M hard today after seeing what they were doing with their Masks."

The president added, "Big surprise to many in government as to what they were doing - will have a big price to pay!"

In recent weeks, 3M said it has doubled its global production of N95 respirators to more than 1 billion per year or nearly 100 million every month.

But the company has been criticized for how those respirators are being distributed — and with the U.S. now reporting more coronavirus cases than any other country, the thinking goes that U.S. companies should service the domestic market, and most importantly the national health care system, first.

Billionaire Mark Cuban was among the first to sharply criticize the company, launching an attack in late March that apparently got the attention of government officials.

"3M lists all its distributors online, the ones buying and selling these things, and these distributors are making as much money as they possibly can," Cuban said in a Bloomberg News interview. "It's wrong, it's criminal."

The director of Florida's Division of Emergency Management echoed Cuban's tone as he attacked 3M this week, saying the company was profiteering while hiding behind a network of distributors and brokers.

"I'm your new Troll," Jared Moskowitz said in a tweet directed at 3M. He added, "Please send us N95 masks directly to our hospitals, first responders and the state. How many brokers and distributors do we have to negotiate with only to find empty warehouses?"

Finding respirators, Moskowitz said, is like chasing ghosts.

Last month, Trump tasked Rear Adm. John Polowczyk with streamlining the supply chain for personal protective equipment and reducing shortages in a critical area of the COVID-19 fight. As the administration announced the new Defense Production Act orders Thursday, the admiral was asked about scenarios in which some governors, such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, compared the current market for N95 masks and other gear to a bidding war on eBay.

"I am now seeing truth about what's in the supply chain," Polowczyk said. "And I would say that there's been some abnormal behavior."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.