To respond to the pandemic, Trump has turned, once again, to Jared Kushner, the White House chief of staff no matter who has the title. When it was Kushner and Ivanka who interviewed former Rep. Mark Meadows to be the fourth chief of staff in three years, he should have known he would only be acting as such.
Kushner is hardly a shadow government when, in fact, he’s overseeing the White House response to the coronavirus—even as that seems to consist mostly of kicking hard decisions to the governors and patting Trump and himself on the back for their “success story.”
Kushner was on board for the weeks Trump squandered after his own intelligence agencies sounded the alarm about the pandemic bearing down on us. He was supportive of Trump’s China travel ban that nonetheless allowed 40,000 people entry and that otherwise allowed for life as usual, meaning rallies and golf games, to continue and give the virus time to magically disappear.
Spoiler: It didn’t.
Before moving to the White House, Trump and Kushner, two moderately unsuccessful second-generation real estate developers, led similar lives making shaky deals for mostly second-rate properties. During the campaign, Kushner came to be the person Trump could trust for sensitive jobs like denying former Gov. Chris Christie the vice presidential slot after it was promised to him. He’s the son Trump never had, married to the wife he wished he had. To Kushner, Mr. Trump, as he called him, became his north star while his father was in prison.
Now they’re Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid without the charm but with all of the bravado. Because there’s is no controlling legal authority to stop them—Trump cheers governors who violate his own Open America Again guidance—they bring the same M.O. to a pandemic that they brought to rolling back auto pollution standards, opening up national preserves to drilling, and giving tax cuts to make Mar-a-Lago members weak with gratitude, which is stop me if you can.
They agree on first principles: that pitting one half the country against the other as if one wants to save the economy and the other is stubbornly preferring to stay home is the best way to “liberate” states, with some help from armed-to-the-teeth protesters.
What Trump believes, Kushner sells. It’s a not-to-do list. Don’t ramp up testing, although we have the best in the world. We’re not shipping clerks, and anyway testing might interfere with keeping our numbers down and the stock market up. Don’t invoke the Defense Production Act but save it for “leverage.” The Pentagon fired its actual point person on the DPA Thursday, continuing a purge of deep staters that would make a Soviet autocrat blush.
Also don’t share critical materials in the national stockpile with the states; they’re “ours.” Don’t trust the skeleton staff at agencies you’re still trying to cut like the Centers for Disease Control—and make sure their guide to states for reopening responsibly does not “see the light of day.” It’s laughably late and probably blank but Trump’s press secretary brandished a Pandemic Crisis Response Plan, supposedly superior to the broken one left by former President Obama who should be arrested for crimes Trump didn’t specify before stomping out of the Rose Garden Wednesday over another nasty question.
Oh, and go around FEMA in contracting for critical supplies. One of Kushner’s larger efforts exemplifies the belief that no employee in government is as good as one who can be conscripted from the private sector, the younger and more inexperienced the better, armed with little more than an iPhone and a list of cold calls to make.
Kushner’s Project Airbridge, which sent 747s all over the world to pick up needed protective equipment, is winding down now but was widely criticized for using taxpayer money to pay shipping costs for private companies getting no-bid contracts, and for lacking transparency over where the supplies were ultimately going while exaggerating the share that ended up with frontline workers. Airbridge claimed it delivered 22 million surgical masks a day, when FEMA records show that number was closer to 2 million.
That’s just one of the uncoordinated amateur efforts Kushner has been involved in that have contributed to delays in everything from testing swabs (Trump blamed his wanting more “beautiful” ones for the hold-up) to critically needed protective equipment. A partial accounting by ProPublica documented $760 million in contracts pushed through outside the usual bidding process.
Meantime, Kushner’s task force is still going strong where Vice President Mike Pence’s official one is winding down. Saddled with scientists and doctors like Anthony Fauci who “surprised” Trump in Senate testimony with his warnings about recurring spikes in infections (or what Trump calls easily doused “embers”), the president first said he’d disband it and now is rebranding it with more more yes men and fewer nerds.
And a family member is always more reliable than the most pliant outsider. Trump no longer needs Pence’s task force as a vehicle for his briefings, always its most important purpose. Any old excuse—a few CEOs or governors visiting, a Q&A on his way to a suspiciously campaign-like trip to a factory in the swing state of Pennsylvania—gets covered, so why bother sharing the podium with pesky deep staters?
One of those pests has been Dr. Rick Bright, who testified before the Senate on Thursday to tell how he was pushed out of his post heading our vaccine effort for sounding an alarm about the administration’s lack of alarm over the virus and his refusal to divert manpower to prove the utility of hydroxychloroquine, Trump’s favorite miracle cure for the virus before he discovered disinfectant’s off-label uses. Most concerning, there’s still no plan for getting supplies to mass-produce a vaccine should one be approved, or distribution for remdesivir, the Gilead drug that’s shortened hospital stays.
It hasn’t been pleasant for Kushner and Ivanka in Washington. They’d lit up Manhattan but are embers here. To get away, they ignored restrictions to rush to Trump’s private club in New Jersey for Passover, exposing staff, Secret Service, nannies, and pilots to infection. As with maskless Dad, the rules don’t apply.
But the move here was worth it for the power and the $100 million-plus Jarvanka have collected since moving into the West Wing for no pay, the best deal since the one where Jared and his family were bailed out of a historically bad purchase of a white elephant at 666 Fifth Avenue by a consortium including Qatar.
The White House doesn’t yet have a plan, or a framework, that rickety thing that sometimes passes for one. It has two salesmen who’ve been getting top price for inferior wares for years trying to make the biggest sale of their lives to the country ready to buy their freedom. But if you’re dropping suppression in favor of trading lives for the economy—how many lives for how many points up on the Dow Jones and down in the employment numbers—we’d like to know without any of the usual lies, scams and spin. Start by assuring us you’re not already cheating by pressuring the CDC to revise downward the number of Americans who’ve already lost their lives to incompetence.
For now I’m heeding Dr. Fauci, whose days could be numbered, and Dr. Bright, whose last words before he joins the all other inconvenient deep staters who’ve been deep-sixed were that to keep following these amateurs in the White House is to risk the “darkest winter in modern history.”