WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is seeking to use powers under a Korean War-era law to cut off 3M’s ability to export surgical masks abroad and to claim more of the masks the Minnesota company manufactures in other countries for use in the United States.
The policy would be a significant expansion of the American government’s reach and a reversal of President Trump’s hesitant use of the Defense Production Act, as his administration seeks to procure much-needed protective gear for health care workers.
But some trade and legal experts fear the policy could backfire, causing other governments to clamp down on exports of masks, ventilator parts and pharmaceuticals that the United States desperately needs. They have also questioned whether the Defense Production Act gives the government the authority to commandeer goods made outside the United States.
At a news briefing on Thursday evening, Peter Navarro, the White House trade adviser who has been put in charge of policy related to the act, said that an executive order the president signed on Thursday was aimed at directing 3M’s production to the Americans who needed it most.
“To be frank, over the last several days we’ve had issues making sure that all of the production that 3M does around the world, enough of it is coming back here to the right places,” he said. “We’re going to resolve that issue with 3M probably by tomorrow, close of business. Because we can’t afford to lose days or hours or even minutes in this crisis.”
Mr. Trump lashed out cryptically on Twitter, saying the administration “hit 3M hard today after seeing what they were doing with their Masks.”
In a statement Friday morning, 3M said that the administration had used the Defense Production Act to request that the company increase the number of respirators that it imports into the United States from its overseas operations, and that it was complying. This week, 3M said, it secured approval from China to export to the United States 10 million N95 respirators that the company manufactures there.
The company added that the administration had also asked 3M to stop exporting respirators made in the United States to Canada and Latin America — a request it said carried “significant humanitarian implications” for people in those countries.
“In addition, ceasing all export of respirators produced in the United States would likely cause other countries to retaliate and do the same, as some have already done,” 3M said. “If that were to occur, the net number of respirators being made available to the United States would actually decrease. That is the opposite of what we and the administration, on behalf of the American people, both seek.”
A wartime era law, the Defense Production Act gives the administration expansive powers to secure supplies, including forcing a company to prioritize the federal government’s contract or even determining the distribution of products made by a company like 3M.
Using the act to control a company’s overseas production would put that company in the difficult position of being forced to violate its previous obligations to foreign customers to comply with the demands of the American government.
On Thursday night, Lizzie Litzow, a spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said only that Mr. Trump had given federal agencies the authority to issue such orders.
“Obviously the United States can say what they want to happen, but it’s not clear whether there is the legal power of the United States to force an operation in another country to violate the law of that country — even if it’s an American company,” said Ernest B. Abbott, who was the general counsel of FEMA during the Clinton administration.
Increasingly, curbs on medicines and medical devices are surfacing around the world, as countries aim to preserve scarce supplies for their own citizens.
As of Wednesday, 68 nations had put limits on exports of medical supplies, according to tracking by Simon Evenett, a professor of international trade at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland.
Although the administration has been pressuring American companies to ramp up their production of ventilators, masks and other needed products, the United States is still highly dependent on imports of protective gear from China, pharmaceuticals from India and ventilator components from around the world.
“Export bans end up having an unintended negative effect on everybody’s ability to supply these goods,” said Jennifer A. Hillman, a senior fellow for trade and international political economy at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They’re a bad idea.”