In February, as the White House scrambled to handle the growing coronavirus epidemic, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, stepped into what officials described as a crucial role: forging a partnership between the private sector and the federal government so they could together contain the rapidly spreading virus.
At the time, the White House was struggling to organize its coronavirus response, having spent years working around the traditional interagency process and having disbanded a key pandemic group in the National Security Council. They needed someone to fully grasp the full international and domestic scales of the outbreak, and ensure that health-care workers had what they needed to treat patients infected with the virus. Kushner seemed like just the person to fill the gaps.
Fast-forward more than a month later and administration officials, state representatives, and health-care workers say they are still searching for answers.
Over the past two weeks, Kushner has been notably removed from coronavirus-related operations, according to four officials working in coordination with his team. One official working in the White House said it was “unclear” exactly what he and his team had actually done over the last two weeks. Another individual familiar with Kushner’s work said they hadn’t received updates from his team in “about a week.”
Scientists warn it’s too soon to open up the country’s economy because there are neither enough tests nor a reliable system in place to ensure hospitals have medical equipment—two Kushner-related tasks. And on Capitol Hill, Democratic lawmakers are probing Kushner’s role in working on coronavirus supply-chain issues and this month asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for communications with Kushner and his team. An individual familiar with the matter told The Daily Beast that the Homeland Security Committee and Oversight and Government Committee have not received answers from the agency despite an April 15 deadline.
“He muddied up a process that was really not needing a fix,” said Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. “What that does is disempower FEMA because if at any moment Jared or one of his henchmen demand assets to be redistributed at their discretion, FEMA’s planning gets disrupted. I’ve never seen operations on something this scale being run out of the White House. Usually it’s policy and communications that they handle… but you would never run logistical operations out of the White House.”
Kushner’s failures were, to some degree, predictable. He brought little background in public-health policy to the task, and though he has some experience in coordinating inside the government, his portfolio was already jam-packed by the time coronavirus came along. Still, the failures underscore the larger shortcomings of the administration’s handling of the pandemic: the pursuit of a resolution to the crisis has often been defined by the search for a silver bullet or overwhelmed by the whims and interests of the president.
“[Jared] could be in his office just googling ‘coronavirus,’ show the results to the president, and still get a gold sticker from his dad-in-law,” said a senior Trump administration official who works with the coronavirus task force. “He is solving the coronavirus like he’s bringing peace to the [Middle East].”
One administration official, in defending Kushner, said he had been focused on finding faster ways to tackle the government’s response to the coronavirus while continuing to try and procure medical supplies. But, that official said, as his projects become operational “there is less requirement of Jared on a day-to-day basis.”
For weeks, Kushner worked on coronavirus primarily behind the scenes. He tapped business and political allies to help him run a parallel coronavirus task force that would tackle the country’s lack of adequate testing and help states garner what they needed in essential medical supplies. He even looked to his own family for assistance. Reports surfaced that the president’s son-in-law spoke with representatives at his brother’s Oscar Health, a health-insurance company, for help producing a site that would allow Americans to determine if they needed a test for coronavirus. (The site was eventually scrapped, The Atlantic reported.)
On April 2, Kushner made a rare public appearance at the White House podium, officially announcing his involvement in Vice President Mike Pence’s task force. Press-shy by nature, he nevertheless sat down for an interview with The New York Times, underscoring how big a deal his move to the coronavirus portfolio was pitched to be. During the interview, he explained that his team was efficient because in “the White House, you can move a lot faster.”
“I’ve put members of my team into a lot of components,” he told the Times. “What we’ve been able to do is get people very quick answers.”
According to multiple sources familiar with his outreach, much of Kushner’s time working as head of a shadow task force has been spent working the phones, often with long-established political and business allies of the president, trying to get some commitments on equipment or economic-recovery efforts, or on general medical or scientific pointers.
One of the numbers in Kushner’s coronavirus rolodex is businessman Shalabh “Shalli” Kumar, a GOP donor and chairman of the Republican Hindu Coalition, a group that strongly supported Trump in the 2016 election. Kumar told The Daily Beast that in the summer of 2017, Kushner had asked him if there was “a way to bring electronics manufacturing back [to the United States] from China.” Ever since then, Kumar says he’s stayed in contact with Kushner and various other Trump officials, including White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, and that two months ago he was approached by Kushner’s office to help on production of ventilators. Kumar said that he and his company are now working on making electronic parts that can be used in ventilators.
There have been times, however, when Kushner’s outreach to private actors has provoked mockery and some internal face-palming. In mid-March, it was reported that Kushner had consulted his sister-in-law’s father, Dr. Kurt Kloss, who happens to be fashion model Karlie Kloss’s dad. Dr. Kloss then posted to a Facebook group soliciting advice on what to tell “Jared,” to whom he told Facebook associates that he had a “direct channel.” The story, first reported by The Spectator, invited scorn and ridicule—not just online but in the White House as well.
In private, President Trump is often defensive of his son-in-law’s work. According to two sources familiar with his comments, Trump is prone to tell staff that Kushner should be getting showered with praise from the media for all he’s doing. And, on occasion, Kushner has received accolades, not just from the White House, the vice president, and various other task force members, but from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio as well.
Multiple officials working with the administration’s coronavirus task force told The Daily Beast that since his appearance at the press conference April 2, in which he seemed to blame governors for poor management, Kushner has ramped up his involvement in helping the president find solutions to reopening the U.S. economy. Kushner is working on that effort with his wife, Ivanka, and other administration officials, including Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Director of the National Economic Council Larry Kudlow.
But that objective is largely contingent on getting the scope of the coronavirus’ spread and reach understood and under control. And several of the projects that Kushner’s team has directed in pursuit of that goal are running behind schedule or are causing massive disruptions in the way states are handling their own coronavirus responses.
“We are still hearing reports that the administration is causing chaos for states looking to acquire [personal protective equipment] and other medical equipment. Worse yet, they are providing Congress with little details on their current operations and how they will improve,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, who is probing Kushner’s role in helping FEMA distribute supplies to states. “It is incredibly troubling that Jared Kushner, someone with no public health or emergency management experience, seems to have a leading role in leading the response to this pandemic.”
In March, the president said his son-in-law would help open a slew of drive-through testing sites in the parking lots of major retailers, including Walgreens, Walmart, and CVS. Task force officials lauded the effort and said it was one of the best ways to scale easy, convenient testing in the U.S.
Work on the project remains ongoing, and administration officials said that already 50 drive-through sites have popped up across the country. The majority of those, however, are state-federal sites unaffiliated with retail stores. One of the reasons there are not more is, in part, because testing needed to be improved before it could be rolled out on a larger scale.
Kushner’s task has not merely been focused on making testing more readily available. Throughout the last two months, officials say his main job has been to help the states obtain much needed personal protective equipment its health-care workers need to treat coronavirus patients.
Dubbed “Project Air Bridge,” Kushner and his team have been working closely with FEMA to get U.S. companies operating in countries such as Thailand, China, India, Mexico, and Taiwan to send supplies to America for distribution to states struggling to keep up with the growing number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. To date, the project has completed more than 68 flights, delivering a total of 760,000 N95 masks, 600 million gloves, and tens of millions of surgical masks and gowns, according to a FEMA spokesperson.
The spokesperson said that 50 percent of supplies on each plane are directed by the distributors to customers within hot-spot areas with the most critical needs as determined by FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services. The remaining 50 percent is fed into distributors’ normal supply chains. Distributors cooperating with the campaign include Cardinal Health, Concordance Healthcare Solutions, Henry Schein, McKesson Corp., Medline Industries, and Owens & Minor.
Project Air Bridge flights have in recent weeks landed in cities across the country, including New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles for distribution.
But despite the millions and millions of supplies secured by the federal government to help states treat their coronavirus patients, state officials are still claiming they don’t have enough supplies.
Part of the reason: State officials say Kushner’s project has interfered with the supply chain so much so that they are unable to hold on to the supplies they bought. Multiple local officials across the country have reported instances where they paid for and successfully obtained supplies only to have FEMA remove them from the warehouse. In New Jersey, Somerset County Freeholder Director Shanel Robinson said a 35,000-mask order of N-95 and surgical masks had been “commandeered” by the federal government.
“This doesn’t even make sense,” Robinson told the Franklin Reporter & Advocate. “Part of the thing is, I know the government is monitoring large orders of equipment, but they had no idea where that was going.”
And in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker said on April 2 that he had tried to procure three million N95 masks, but they were “confiscated” at the Port of New York.
“FEMA does not, has not, and will not divert orders of personal protective equipment (PPE) from our federal, state, and local partners, nor do we have the legal authority to do so,” a spokesperson for FEMA said. “Reports of FEMA commandeering or re-routing such supplies are false.”
Those reports have alarmed some Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill who are requesting that FEMA explain Kushner’s role in Project Air Bridge and provide documentation on exactly how the team is procuring and distributing medical equipment. Thompson and Chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) sent a letter to FEMA on April 7 asking for communications and documentations on Project Air Bridge shipments.
“It appears that Mr. Kushner is unclear about basic facts regarding the purpose of the Strategic National Stockpile,” the letter said. “We request that FEMA provide… all communications between any FEMA employee and Jared Kushner regarding the acquisition, distribution of, or federally directed sale of any form of PPE or of medical supplies and equipment to be used for the diagnosis or treatment of COVID-19.”