The president’s son-in-law and adviser has added the emergency-response supply chain to his extensive list of duties. He views himself as a disrupter — but that’s not always a good thing.
by Andrea Bernstein, WNYC
April 22, 2 p.m. EDT
On April 2, Jared Kushner uncharacteristically took to the podium to speak at the White House’s daily coronavirus briefing. He’d been given the task, he said, of assisting Vice President Mike Pence’s Coronavirus Task Force with supply chain issues. “The president,” Kushner said, “wanted us to make sure we think outside the box, make sure we’re finding all the best thinkers in the country, making sure we’re getting all the best ideas, and that we’re doing everything possible to make sure that we can keep Americans safe.”
That very day, he said, President Donald Trump told him that “he was hearing from friends of his in New York that the New York public hospital system was running low on critical supply.” So Kushner called Dr. Mitchell Katz, who runs the 12-hospital system, which serves, in a normal year, over a million patients. Kushner said he’d asked Katz which supply he was most nervous about: “He told me it was the N95 masks. I asked what his daily burn was. And I basically got that number.”
Trump has made many false and misleading claims from that and other lecterns: 18,000 such statements during his presidency, according to the most recent tally by The Washington Post, 350 of them on the coronavirus alone.
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Praise for Kushner has been resounding from Democratic officials in New York and New Jersey. De Blasio has thanked him repeatedly, as have New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and Sen. Cory Booker. Even New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in his alternating dance of praise and opprobrium for the White House, has singled out Kushner for accolades (and no barbs). As a senior official in the Murphy administration put it: “I have found Jared to be incredibly responsive. We talk a few times a day on the phone.” The official said text exchanges are even more frequent.
In a chaotic environment, the New Jersey boy turned Manhattan businessman turned senior White House adviser is using his clout to help the cities and states at the epicenter of a global pandemic get the aid they need.
Yet there’s another side to the equation. Kushner’s role is also a symptom of the dysfunction of the Trump administration, according to critics, some of whom worked in emergency management under Republican and Democratic administrations. The ad hoc nature of Kushner’s mission and its lack of transparency make it hard for people — and government agencies — to know exactly what he’s doing. So far, those officials say, there’s little sign Kushner or anyone at the White House is helping New York or New Jersey with their urgent longer-term needs, particularly more testing and billions from Congress to ease the gaping holes that have emerged in local budgets.
“If you can reach Jared, if you can applaud Jared, if you can convince him that you’re the most needy, he will deliver for you,” said Juliette Kayyem, faculty chair of the homeland security project at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a former assistant secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration. But his role bypasses long-held tenets of how the federal government should work in a national emergency, she said, without addressing systemic problems, much less reinventing the bureaucracy. “What’s outside the box? What process is outside the box? It can’t possibly be Kushner’s [giving out his] cellphone number,” Kayyem said. “But that’s what it appears to be.”
She added: “The system is designed not to work that way because in any disaster, and in particular, one that’s in 50 states, there’s demand everywhere. And there’s demand today and there will be demand tomorrow. You need a centralized repository more than a single guy on a phone to determine what your needs are and where you’re going to deliver, and you can’t do that by transactional relationships.”
To state the obvious: Kushner can’t possibly return calls and fulfill requests from 50 governors, hundreds of mayors and thousands of emergency officials around the country.
It’s not just a problem of scalability, Kayyem said. “It’s dangerous to disrupt it,” she said of the supply chain. “Confusion is the last thing you want, when you’re talking about a supply chain.” In both New York and New Jersey, officials said, FEMA was unaware that supplies promised by Kushner’s group had been shipped, days after the shipments had been made.
Neither the White House nor FEMA responded to requests for comment.
It’s easy to malign government operations in the midst of a national calamity, but, experts say, there’s a reason that the systems are organized the way they have been: They can work if they’re managed well. Peter Ragone worked as communications director for de Blasio when the Ebola virus seemed to threaten New York. “What struck me then is that the federal government was an incredible partner,” said Ragone, who has since become a Democratic political strategist. “We were on the phone with the Centers for Disease Control, the White House, HHS, all the time nonstop. In fact, the CDC even came to our press conferences.”
Now, in the middle of a national emergency, the federal system meant to fight disasters has a free agent — one with no evident experience in any aspect of it — playing a potent but undefined role.
Putting a powerful person outside the existing White House structure “poses a challenge,” said Mark Harvey, who was the senior director for resilience on the Trump administration’s national security staff until January and is now a resident fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics. “One of the great successful practices that we had in the White House across administrations,” said Harvey, who cautions that the current disaster is unprecedented in scope and duration, “was that whenever there was a domestic crisis, we had one single point of coordination within the White House that would then work with all of the interagency partners across the federal government. And it didn’t matter where information came into the white house. It all came to that central point.”
In January, ProPublica and WNYC described Kushner as the second most powerful man in the administration, and his portfolio has only grown since then. He’s never been as central to the nation’s future as he is at this moment. As we reported then, people who worked with Kushner said he views himself as a disrupter. His grandparents survived Nazi-occupied Poland, escaped and immigrated to America against all odds. His father, unlike other New Jersey Jewish developers at the time, aggressively raised his profile and his family fortune. And Jared Kushner found success by taking what others saw as impossible, foolhardy risks: In his mid-20s, he became the publisher of a weekly newspaper, The New York Observer in an era when newspapers were cratering, and pushed his editors in chief — five of them in as many years — to focus less on substantive articles and more on helping his friends and punishing his enemies.
Then he purchased a Manhattan skyscraper (666 Fifth Avenue) on the eve of the Great Recession. The building nearly failed under the Kushners’ ownership before they managed, barely, to refinance it. The lesson he took from this, according to someone familiar with the deal, “was not ‘holy shit, I almost lost everything,’ it was ‘I should take on as much risk as I can.’”
Over a dozen people who have worked with Kushner in New York and New Jersey say he has long relied on phone relationships. “So much of Jared’s business was relationships,” one associate said. “In order to be able to get deals done you have to be able to call somebody.” Another added: “He has a huge rolodex. … He would be like: ‘I will just make a call. I will call so-and-so.’ He was young and rich and powerful, and he got along with people. That was a big part of his M.O.: to make a call, to make something happen.”
At the White House briefing, Kushner shifted the responsibility for gathering supplies squarely to the states. “The notion of the federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be our stockpile,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be state stockpiles that they then use.”
“That’s exactly what it’s meant for,” Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly retorted the next day on the public radio show “Here and Now.” “And always has been and has to continue to be. The federal government actually has a responsibility to gather that stuff together and distribute it.”
The day after Kushner’s press briefing, the Strategic National Stockpile, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, quietly changed its website. It had stated: “The Strategic National Stockpile is the nation’s largest supply of life-saving pharmaceuticals and medical supplies for use in a public health emergency severe enough to cause local supplies to run out.” After Kushner described it differently, the language was adjusted to match what he’d said: “The Strategic National Stockpile’s role is to supplement state and local supplies during public health emergencies.” Rather than fix the system, the federal government rewrote the description to lower the bar for itself.
Kelly, a Democrat, said she did not have a line to Kushner or into the White House. So to get her state’s needs met, she went through Kansas’ Republican congressional delegation. After multiple rounds of requests through the state’s senators over a period of weeks, federal supplies arrived days ago.
Still, a lack of federal assistance remains a common complaint among governors and there’s little indication that Kushner has made a difference. In a radio interview in late March, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she was told the White House is preventing her state from getting aid. Whitmer, who is seen as a potential Democratic vice presidential nominee, said vendors are “being told not to send stuff to Michigan. It’s really concerning.” Trump said at one press conference, within a day of Whitmer’s interview, that he told Pence, “Don’t call the woman in Michigan.” As of April 19, Whitmer was still expressing concern that the federal government wasn’t helping her state obtain needed testing supplies. Meanwhile, Trump was openly supporting protests against Whitmer.
During the same TV interview in which Whitmer spoke, a Republican governor, Mike DeWine of Ohio, echoed Whitmer’s pleas for federal supplies, all but begging the Food and Drug Administration to provide key testing supplies. “If anybody in the FDA is watching,” DeWine said, “this could really take our capacity up.” Neither governor mentioned Kushner (and neither responded to requests for comment).
The head of the National Governors Association, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, said he has had one conversation with Kushner, which helped his state get 138 ventilators, according to reporting by Luke Broadwater of The Baltimore Sun. Hogan, a Republican, has sparred with Trump, and this week Maryland obtained coronavirus tests from South Korea without federal assistance. “If there was an easier way,” Hogan said, “we certainly would’ve taken it.” (Hogan did not reply to a request for comment.)
Officially, Kushner is not addressing the supply chain issues all by himself. He has a task force. But details have been scant. On April 16, Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Richard Blumenthal and Tom Carper wrote to the White House expressing concerns about Kushner’s task force. “Mr. Kushner’s task force,” they wrote, “reportedly includes ‘a suite of McKinsey consultants,’ a private equity executive, and a host of other representatives from private industries. Though they have purportedly signed ‘voluntary service agreements’ and have avoided participating in procurement processes, questions remain as to who exactly comprises this task force, the vetting process for its members, and what role the members play in addressing issues related to the pandemic.
“Moreover, reports indicate that Mr. Kushner’s task force has been ‘attract[ing] companies seeking to entrench themselves in hopes of winning lucrative government contracts down the line,’” the senators continued. “underscoring the need for robust ethics oversight. Mr. Kushner and his task force appear to have substantial, and often disruptive, influence over White House policy initiatives related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Kushner has had many roles in the Trump administration. Before working on the virus, he took on the job of chief White House liaison to Trump/Pence 2020. The campaign has been active, raising money, noting, as campaign aide Lara Trump (the wife of the president’s son Eric) recently did, that the coronavirus daily briefings have supplanted rallies as a way to energize Trump supporters.
When asked if Kushner is still overseeing the campaign while also working on obtaining masks and gowns for struggling localities, a friend of the Kushner family texted back: “100%.”
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