The first rule for politics in a crisis is: When in doubt, order it out. After weeks of complaints about a lack of testing capacity in the COVID-19 pandemic and assurances that capacity is coming, Donald Trump has decided to hack right through the Gordian knot instead. Politico reported late last night that Trump will use his authority under the Defense Production Act to order the manufacture of 20 million test swabs per month, although it’s not initially clear which manufacturer(s) will be required to meet that quota:

President Donald Trump will use the Defense Production Act to compel an unnamed company to produce 20 million more coronavirus testing swabs every month — weeks after labs and public health officials started warning that shortages of these swabs were hurting efforts to ramp up testing nationwide.

In his nightly press briefing on Sunday, Trump repeatedly referred to the swabs as “easy” to procure — especially compared to the ventilators that he has previously compelled companies to manufacture. He even brought a swab as a prop, holding it up next to a Q-Tip before handing it to Vice President Mike Pence.

Asked why his administration waited for weeks to use the Defense Production Act on swabs, Trump alternately claimed that states have “millions coming in” already, that states can procure them on their own, and that governors “don’t know quite where they are” and need the federal government’s help.

“It’s a tremendous hammer,” he said of the DPA. “We have millions of them coming in. They are very easy. … In all fairness, governors could get them themselves. But we are going to do it. We’ll work with the governors and if they can’t do it, we’ll do it.” He added that “we have millions of them coming in very soon.”

CNBC also reported on this last night, noting that it came hours after both Gretchen Whitmer and Ralph Northam called out the administration over the swab shortage. The DPA decision appears, at least, to be a reaction to the chatter on the Sunday morning shows:

Trump’s announcement comes after some governors cited a lack of swabs and reagents as hampering their ability to conduct more coronavirus tests. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that her state could triple the number of tests conducted if the key components were made available.

Whitmer called on the Trump administration to enact the Defense Production Act to ramp up swab and reagent production.

“We don’t even have enough swabs believe it or not and we’re ramping that up,” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, told CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday. “But, for the national level to say that we have what we need and really to have no guidance to the state levels is just irresponsible because we’re not there yet.”

Why now? Why didn’t Trump order this production level a week ago, when the administration began discussing the rollout of its grand reopening strategy? This presents a similar issue as Trump’s earlier DPA exercise with ventilators. It appears reactive rather than proactive, acting as a tacit confirmation that testing supplies aren’t nearly as available as the White House has been claiming. Trump argued this morning that he turned out to be correct on the level of ventilators necessary, but that misses the political point:

True enough on the overproduction of ventilators, but Trump belatedly issued the DPA order anyway. He did so on masks and other PPE only after considerable public complaints from governors, too. The pattern makes it look less as though Trump is leading, and more like Trump’s getting dragged into using his authority effectively to deal with the crisis.

With that said, there’s considerable nuance to using the DPA to order production, too. First off, the production capacity might simply not exist, but more importantly, the leverage provided by the DPA probably works better as a threat than as an actual order. When it comes to pricing and production, the DPA makes a very good stick, at least on paper. The reluctance to use it might lessen that value, but Trump has used it enough now to where the negotiating partners understand its probability. Finally, we shouldn’t be cheering government production demands as a virtue except in the most dire and exigent circumstances, a point that a businessman like Trump would understand all too well.

However, Congress gives presidents that authority for those dire and exigent circumstances. The economic collapse we are currently experiencing qualifies, and since testing is the path out of this catastrophe, its mass production is a necessity. Now that Trump has announced his plans to use that authority, he leaves himself open to criticism for not having exercised it earlier and for rebutting calls to take executive action to expand testing. His approval ratings would likely improve with a more proactive approach, or at least without the appearance of getting badgered into DPA exercises. The “tremendous hammer” only redounds to Trump’s benefit when it’s clearly his own initiative that swings it first.