Whenever a member of the Trump family gets involved with a project, it is always smart to keep an eye out for the grift.
We might have hoped that a pandemic that has already cost more than 70,000 Americans their lives would be an exception to this rule. But no. President Donald Trump’s decision to again put his unqualified son-in-law Jared Kushner in charge of a team charged with a vital national security interest — this time, procuring crucial supplies and protective equipment for hospitals and others on the front lines of fighting the coronavirus — is producing the usual results: incompetence and cronyism.
Both The Washington Post and The New York Times report that Kushner and a small team of inexperienced volunteers from the private sector have overridden career officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and are making a deadly crisis even deadlier with their amateur-hour bungling. The two newspapers — which no doubt will be denounced by the White House as “fake news” — based their accounts on a whistleblower memo written by one of the volunteers and interviews with government sources familiar with the effort.
The story line, which sounds as though it might have been lifted from the reality show “Shark Tank,” had been that these whiz kids from consulting, venture capital and private equity firms were better equipped than federal officials who have spent years planning for a disaster like the one we are going through to sift through leads on where to find badly needed personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies and cut deals to acquire them.
That the volunteers would want to lend a hand is admirable, but finding and procuring the proper equipment requires a high degree of technical knowledge. As my colleagues Yasmeen Abutaleb and Ashley Parker reported, “the team responsible for PPE had little success in helping the government secure such equipment, in part because none of the team members had significant experience in health care, procurement or supply-chain operations. In addition, none of the volunteers had relationships with manufacturers or a clear understanding of customs requirements or Food and Drug Administration rules, according to the complaint and two senior administration officials.”
And as you might expect in any operation run by a member of the Trump family, some leads and requests got better treatment than others. Documents and emails indicate there was a spreadsheet titled “V.I.P. Update,” which gave priority to Trump allies who included Republican members of Congress; former “Apprentice” contestant Tana Goertz, who now runs Women For Trump, and favored media figures such as “Fox & Friends” host Brian Kilmeade. Also put on a fast track were requests by Fox News Channel host Jeanine Pirro that a specific New York hospital receive a large quantity of masks.
In one case, Kushner’s volunteers forwarded a tip (that they claimed to have checked out) to New York state, which awarded a $69 million contract to a supposed supplier of ventilators. Not one was delivered. Meanwhile, more credible leads were being ignored.
All of this has been going on as the government’s warehouses of supplies were emptying out and medical personnel were trying to cobble together their own gear. Faced with complaints by governors and local officials that they were not getting what they needed from the Strategic National Stockpile, Kushner declared: “The notion of the federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be our stockpile. It’s not supposed to be state stockpiles that they then use.”
After Kushner made that comment, the Health and Human Services Department quickly changed the wording on a web page about the stockpile. Where previously it indicated the stockpile existed for the states to use, it now is described as a “supplement” to state and local supplies during public health emergencies.
The president seems to have a bottomless faith that his son-in-law can solve any problem that lands on the Resolute desk. In addition to the coronavirus-response shop that Kushner has set up at FEMA, his “senior adviser” portfolio includes brokering peace in the Middle East, building a border wall, reforming the criminal-justice system, and of course, the highest priority of all, getting Trump reelected.
All of this is quite a load for a 39-year-old whose previous experience consisted of investments, real-estate development and publishing a high-society newspaper.
We are seeing now why government cannot, and should not, be run like a family business. In normal times, nepotism is merely corrupt. But at a moment such as the nightmare that we are all living through, it can be fatal.