President Donald Trump’s top adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner insisted on Thursday that the government had not built up a national stockpile of medical equipment for states to use during threats like the coronavirus since those states have strategic reserves of their own.
The remark drew raised eyebrows from experts, considering presidents have dispersed supplies from the national strategic stockpiles for use by states dozens of times over the last twenty years. In fact, the Trump administration itself has dipped into the federal reserves to help states in need. Most notably, in 2017, the administration used the stockpile to send materials such as beds and medical equipment to states ravaged by Hurricane Harvey.
That Kushner either didn’t recall this or had deliberately glossed over it sparked additional questions about Kushner’s suitability to play a leading role in the administration’s response to the coronavirus threat.
“He doesn’t know what the hell he is talking about. He has no idea,” said Gen. Russel Honore, a retired military general who helped direct the response on the ground during Hurricane Katrina. “He must have remembered something from some slide or some speech. But that’s why people created the national strategic stockpile in the first place. It’s for those days when we can’t predict what we need. What I see is a total misunderstanding by the White House that they have a responsibility to help maintain the stockpile and help states.”
Kushner’s comments came during a rare appearance before the press corps and as he is taking on a more prominent role in the administration’s response to the global pandemic. In particular, the president’s son-in-law is helping coordinate filling the gaps in the supply chain by trying to gather data on who needs what medical supplies and procuring that equipment so nurses and doctors have what they need to save lives. Kushner and other top Trump officials, including White House adviser Peter Navarro, have put together a group of officials within the larger coronavirus task force to try and pool resources from the private industry and U.S. health distributors overseas. But states are still not receiving the vital medical supplies —such as masks and ventilators—that they need to handle the surge of coronavirus patients.
When asked about Kushner’s remarks on Friday, President Donald Trump exploded at the reporter posing the question, saying they should be “ashamed.”
“You know what ‘our’ means? United States of America, that's what it means,” Trump said. “He said our and our means for the country and our means for the states because the states are a part of the country.”
While state governments do possess their own stockpiles of equipment and supplies, the national strategic stockpile was originally designed in 1999 to help states fill the gaps when facing things like natural or health disasters. The role of the stockpile has expanded dramatically in recent years amid more frequent natural disasters.
But the Trump White House’s approach to filling the supply chain gaps has been slapstick at best, officials say, in part because it was unprepared for taking the lead in responding to a global pandemic. For weeks, the administration struggled to understand which agency was responsible for studying the supply chain breakdown and which was in charge of fixing not only the dwindling medical supplies in hospitals, but also the shortages of products like toilet paper and paper towels in grocery stores.
“We missed dealing with this disaster because for weeks, the White House said it was a hoax,” Honore said. “So we missed at least four weeks of anticipation and preparation on the logistics side because of our leadership.”
The White House, with the help of the Department of Health and Human Services, tried to lead the government’s response to the coronavirus, reaching out to other federal agencies to take over only in certain circumstances. It wasn’t until March 18 that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) —an agency with a regional response structure—took over. By that time, weeks had passed before the Trump administration had a clear plan in place to get states what they needed quickly.
“It shouldn’t be this complicated,” said Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. “It’s supposed to happen like a light switch you flip on. And this should have happened a month ago. This is not inventing a vaccine, this is just shipping stuff. In these situations you want a light White House touch and you want the subject matter experts to take the lead.”
It appears the administration is still scrambling to catch up. Officials inside the coronavirus task force told The Daily Beast that the data gathering on the supply chain issues had become so disjointed that the White House turned outward for help. This week the National Association of Manufacturers announced that it would survey private sector companies on medical supplies and equipment, including personal protective equipment and test kits, and would report the data back to the federal government.
According to federal data, the administration has indicated only eight times in it’s contract awards since Jan. 1 that it was procuring medical supplies for the national stockpile. The contracts were doled out by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at HHS to 3M, W.W. Grainger, an industrial supply company, and C.H. Robinson, a logistics and supply company. The awards were for things like coveralls and masks and added up to about $1.6 million.
During his appearance, Kushner was pressed as to why the administration didn’t have more ventilators, facemasks, and other PPEs in its stockpile—as several government bodies and medical experts have warned for years that a flu pandemic would potentially ravage the country.
“The notion of the federal stockpile was it's supposed to be our stockpile. It's not supposed to be states' stockpiles that they then use,” Kushner replied. So “we're encouraging the states to make sure that they're assessing the needs, they're getting the data from their local situations, and then trying to fill it with the supplies that we've given them.”
The answer confounded experts who said it fundamentally misrepresented the purpose of the stockpile, including during the Trump years.
“[Kushner] was wrong,” said Samantha Montano, an expert on emergency management at the University of Nebraska- Omaha. “I don't really know what else to say about it. I don't know where his misunderstanding of what the purpose of the national stockpile (is) comes from. But it's not for just the federal government.”
Kushner's words struck Montano as “horrifying.”
“It demonstrates that they are not only not following the plans that have been in place for how to manage an event like this, but that they are willing to lie to the American public about it and then go change descriptions on websites to try and cover their tracks,” Montano said.
On Thursday afternoon, HHS updated the portion of its website that describes the national strategic stockpile and appeared to alter it slightly to more closely coincide with Kushner’s comments on Thursday.
Katherine McKeogh, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, told Politico in a statement Friday the revisions were in progress before Kushner's appearance at the Thursday briefing.