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Friday, September 18, 2020

“That’s Their Problem”: How Jared Kushner Let the Markets Decide America’s COVID-19 Fate | Vanity Fair

"On the evening of Saturday, March 21, a small group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, business executives, and venture capitalists gathered in the White House Situation Room to offer their help to the Trump administration as it confronted a harrowing shortage of lifesaving supplies to battle COVID-19.
More than seven weeks after the federal government first learned that a new and lethal coronavirus was barreling toward U.S. shores, hospitals were pleading for masks, gloves, and other personal protective equipment to safeguard their medical staff. Intensive care nurses had been photographed wearing garbage bags instead of gowns. More than 19,600 Americans had been diagnosed with the disease, and at least 260 had died.
The meeting’s attendees—some present, some dialing in—were a bipartisan collection of heavy hitters. The ad hoc group had spent weeks canvassing America’s private sector to map the shortages and draft a plan to solve them. Briefly using a hotel ballroom in Washington, D.C., as a makeshift headquarters, they sought answers to some urgent questions: What capacity did America’s companies have to manufacture protective equipment and medical supplies? What supplies could be ordered now? Were there hidden reserves?
They had secured commitments from dozens of major corporations, including General Motors, to manufacture ventilators, map supply needs, create a system for contact tracing, and much more.
On Friday, March 20, they met with a large group of officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency—people one attendee described as “the doers”—to strategize how best to replenish the nation’s depleted reserves of PPE. The attendees had gotten a significant pledge from, among many others, Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors. Her company could reconfigure a production line to make ventilators, so long as the federal government would commit to purchasing them. To accomplish that, the private sector attendees and the FEMA officials discussed the need for President Donald Trump to invoke a federal law called the Defense Production Act, which would unleash the government’s procurement powers.
As one attendee recounted, certain government officials there had “implored” the group to return the next day to the White House for a follow-up with President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, to make the case for the Defense Production Act. Earlier in the month Kushner had formed a coronavirus “shadow task force” running parallel to the official one helmed by Vice President Mike Pence.
The meeting began at 6:30 p.m. Kushner is an observant Jew and normally wouldn’t work during Shabbat, which ended at 8:00 that evening, but a “rabbinic dispensation” allows him to make exceptions for matters of public importance, according to a senior administration official.
Those representing the private sector expected to learn about a sweeping government plan to procure supplies and direct them to the places they were needed most. New York, home to more than a third of the nation’s coronavirus cases, seemed like an obvious candidate. In turn they came armed with specific commitments of support, a memo on the merits of the Defense Production Act, a document outlining impediments to the private-sector response, and two key questions: How could they best help? And how could they best support the government’s strategy?
What actually transpired in the room stunned a number of those in attendance. Vanity Fair has reconstructed the details of the meeting for the first time, based on recollections, notes, and calendar entries from three people who attended the meeting. All quotations are based on the recollections of one or more individual attendees.
Kushner, seated at the head of the conference table, in a chair taller than all the others, was quick to strike a confrontational tone. “The federal government is not going to lead this response,” he announced. “It’s up to the states to figure out what they want to do.”
One attendee explained to Kushner that due to the finite supply of PPE, Americans were bidding against each other and driving prices up. To solve that, businesses eager to help were looking to the federal government for leadership and direction.
“Free markets will solve this,” Kushner said dismissively. “That is not the role of government.”
The same attendee explained that although he believed in open markets, he feared that the system was breaking. As evidence, he pointed to a CNN report about New York governor Andrew Cuomo and his desperate call for supplies.
“That’s the CNN bullshit,” Kushner snapped. “They lie.”
According to another attendee, Kushner then began to rail against the governor: “Cuomo didn’t pound the phones hard enough to get PPE for his state…. His people are going to suffer and that’s their problem.” 
“That’s when I was like, We’re screwed,” the shocked attendee told Vanity Fair.
The group argued for invoking the Defense Production Act. “We were all saying, ‘Mr. Kushner, if you want to fix this problem for PPE and ventilators, there’s a path to do it, but you have to make a policy change,’” one person who attended the meeting recounted.
In response Kushner got “very aggressive,” the attendee recalled. “He kept invoking the markets” and told the group they “only understood how entrepreneurship works, but didn’t understand how government worked.”
Though Kushner’s arguments “made no sense,” said the attendee, there seemed to be little hope of changing his mind. “It felt like Kushner was the president. He sat in the chair and he was clearly making the decisions.”
Kushner was accompanied by Navy Rear Admiral John Polowczyk, who had just been posted to FEMA to lead supply-chain efforts. He heaped flattery on Kushner, calling his ideas “brilliant,” and expressed skepticism concerning the motives of those in the room and on the phone. “Are you trying to hawk your wares on us?” he asked one participant.
Ultimately, there was little follow-up from the government on the group’s offers. President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act in name a week later, but he didn’t immediately use the act to formally order supplies, sparking confusion and delays. He also rage-tweeted at Barra, the CEO of GM: “Always a mess with Mary B.” The government waited until April 8 to announce its first order of ventilators from GM.
“We had so much potential to commandeer against this,” said one person who attended the meeting. “We had a real system for contact tracing, the world’s best mobile engineers on standby. There was a real opportunity to have a coordinated response.”
That attendee said he remains “angry” over the federal government’s intransigence in stockpiling supplies and feels certain that people died because of it. “At the time I just thought of it as blind capitalism and extreme libertarian ideals gone wrong,” he said. “In hindsight it’s not crazy to think it was some purposeful belief that it was okay if Cuomo had a tough go of it because [New York] was a blue state.”
According to another attendee, it seemed “very clear” Kushner was less interested in finding a solution because, at the time, the virus was primarily ravaging cities in blue states: “We were flabbergasted. I basically had an out-of-body experience: Where am I, and what happened to America?”
In response to a request for comment, a senior administration official told Vanity Fair that the meeting was not confrontational and said the attendees’ impressions were “not rooted in reality.” He said the federal government had sourced “over a billion items of PPE, enough ventilators so that no American was denied one, and we are the leading testing country in the world.” He added that the “vast majority of the federal response was aimed at helping blue states,” and pointed to public statements Governor Cuomo had made, in which he said Kushner had been “extraordinarily helpful.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany had this to say: “This story is another inaccurate and disgusting partisan hit job. President Trump has consistently put the health of all Americans first.”
From left, Kushner, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Health and Human Services HHS Secretary Alex Azar, and Chief Executive Officer of the United States International Development Finance Corporation Adam Boehler boarding Marine One, July 27, 2020.By Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images.
From left, Kushner, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Health and Human Services HHS Secretary Alex Azar, and Chief Executive Officer of the United States International Development Finance Corporation Adam Boehler boarding Marine One, July 27, 2020.By Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images.
At the end of July, writing for Vanity Fair, I revealed that Kushner had commissioned a robust federal COVID-19 testing plan, only to abandon it before it could be implemented. One public health expert in frequent contact with the White House’s official coronavirus task force said a national plan likely fell out of favor in part because of a disturbingly cynical calculation: “The political folks believed that because [the virus] was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy.”
The story struck a nerve, partly because it painted a picture of what might have been: The administration could have invested in a national testing system at a scale that could have greatly limited the number of cases and deaths. Instead the U.S. is on track to pass the grim milestone of 200,000 official COVID-19 deaths this month. With just 4% of the world’s population, we now account for 20% of global deaths from the virus.
After the story was published, I pressed on with my reporting, hoping to learn more about Kushner’s operation. I also wanted to better understand how the U.S., with its advanced medical systems, unmatched epidemiological know-how, and vaunted regulatory and public health institutions, could have fumbled the crisis so disastrously.
Part of the answer almost certainly lies in the deep-seated belief, held by Kushner, President Trump, and their loyalists, that the federal government not only should not, but cannot play an effective leading role in responding to the pandemic, owing to its lumbering bureaucracy and onerous rules. At almost each step they have ignored the expertise of career officials and dismissed those with relevant experience as counterproductive meddlers. Trump famously calls them the Deep State. (A senior administration official denied this, saying, “The administration worked diligently to combine the best of the federal government and the private sector.”)
Though even a well-coordinated federal response would have posed extreme challenges, it could have followed a well-marked trail. Early on President Trump could have unleashed the vast procurement powers of the federal government. The Defense Production Act, a Korean War–era law, allows the president to direct U.S. businesses to manufacture supplies—and gives the federal government first dibs on buying them. It was an obvious solution to a crisis that threatened the life of every American citizen.
“When the military needs to buy planes and make bullets, [it doesn’t] rely on the invisible hand of the free market,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development who helped lead the Obama administration’s response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak. It uses the Defense Production Act, “because it’s urgent,” he said.
But as experts watched and waited, Trump shied away from invoking the act—which he later deployed haphazardly. (A senior administration official said President Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act “dozens of times when appropriate.”) Instead he put his faith in the entrepreneurial instincts of his son-in-law. And Kushner wasn’t interested in a big government solution.
Kushner set out to reinvent what a response might look like, countering the Deep State with what you might call a Consultant State of his own creation. This might have been a worthwhile experiment had it not taken place in the context of a once-in-a-century public health catastrophe. As it is, it has led to organizational chaos, futile misadventures, and, most tellingly, a steadily climbing death rate. Often communicating using the encrypted platform WhatsApp, with little adherence to public records laws or federal contracting guidelines, Kushner and a tight-knit group of allies he’s recruited have overseen a response riddled with special favors and political calculation. When they managed to procure lifesaving equipment, they used the surplus to shore up the president’s relationship with Russia, hijacking a foreign aid agency in the process. And when they made a deal to bring drug manufacturing home to the United States, it blew up amid accusations of financial fraud.
“What you have going on here is smoke and mirrors,” said Larry Hall, who retired last year as director of the Defense Production Act program division at FEMA. “You do not have a national strategy.”
From the beginning of his involvement in the pandemic, Kushner set about sidelining government experts in favor of young, untested volunteers drawn from consulting firms and investment banks like McKinsey and Goldman Sachs. Using personal emails and working under nondisclosure agreements, the volunteers were supposed to use their private sector savvy to source leads on protective equipment, then turn those leads over to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
They operated at the direction of a former Goldman Sachs analyst and 2014 Princeton University graduate named Rachael Baitel, who’d previously worked as a special assistant to Ivanka Trump at the White House. Before getting into finance she’d also worked as a denim intern at Ralph Lauren. Baitel’s group eventually spawned its own whistleblower, who alleged in a letter to a congressional subcommittee that the group maintained a spreadsheet titled “V.I.P. Update” that gave priority to tips from political allies and friends, according to reports in the New York Times and Washington Post.
A senior administration official involved in the task force said the young financial analysts provided an efficient solution to an unprecedented problem: Dubious leads on supplies were flooding in from around the world. “In the first tier of a venture capital firm, you receive incoming calls from your investment firm. You vet them, you prequalify them.” Those volunteers were able to “step through the mishmosh” and figure out the leads to pursue.
The journalist Duff McDonald, author of The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence on American Business, said it’s common for private sector CEOs to use management consultants as a crutch when they are out of their depth—and don’t want to be blamed for what goes wrong. “Kushner is at a loss for how to stall what is happening, so he’s doing the classic ‘analyst punt,’” McDonald said, “going to his pals at McKinsey instead of people in the Deep State who can do their jobs today. These are people who think, If you have a quantitative grasp, you can manage anything. I have no doubt that they’re telling Kushner he’s a genius as well.”
One attorney who worked at a private company that conferred with the government on procuring PPE described the Kushner team’s interactions with colleagues as “off the books, completely irregular.” The attorney said a common refrain from Baitel was, “We have to figure out a way around this”—“this” being the government-procurement laws that Kushner and his team believed were an obstacle to quick action. Their strategy, the lawyer said, amounted to: “Call the people we see at Davos and have them go get stuff for us.”
Some career officials within the so-called Deep State view Kushner and his deputies with intense skepticism, referring to them derisively as the “Slim-Suit Crowd.” One of the most prominent members of the Slim-Suit Crowd is a man who, in a White House that values loyalty above all else, seems to have the ultimate credential: He roomed with Kushner for a summer in the NYU dorms, when they were both college students interning at different investment banks. Kushner later attended his wedding.
On March 12, the day after Vice President Pence pulled Kushner into the pandemic response, Kushner reached out to his old friend Adam Boehler, who was serving in the administration as the CEO of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, a newly created development bank within the federal government tasked with making loans overseas.
Tapping Boehler was not a terrible idea. Formerly a health care executive, he had founded an innovative start-up called Landmark Health, which brought primary care to the homes of underserved, chronically ill patients. Andy Slavitt, a former Obama administration health care official who has served as a sounding board for Boehler, told me, “This is a guy who can work 20 hours a day. If he gets one more ventilator to save one more life, that’s the name of the game.”
But to some of the besieged health care officials who began fielding his directives, Boehler was a government neophyte and an unaccountable agent of chaos. They felt the same way about Baitel, who became his deputy chief of staff at the DFC. Boehler approached the pandemic response like a management consultant looking to slash red tape. He shared Trump and Kushner’s quasi messianic belief in the private sector’s ability to respond effectively to the crisis and their contempt for government capabilities. On April 30, Boehler appeared as a guest on the podcast run by Michael Milken, the American financier who pleaded guilty to securities and tax violations in 1990 and was pardoned by Trump three decades later. “My job has been to bring public and private together and to work to drive very quick action,” Boehler said.
Boehler described public–private partnerships as “a big focus of the president, Jared, and me.” He added, “We get asked all the time: How come we’re not throwing Defense Production Act orders all over the place? ... It’s not necessary when you have the private market taking all the right actions to support Americans.”
In reality the private sector not only needed, but wanted federal leadership. “Everyone involved was begging for the federal government to figure out the needs, make a very big order at a very fair price, and scientifically figure out how to distribute PPE,” said a software company CEO who worked on the pandemic response. Those in private industry trying to procure supplies did not want to bid against fellow Americans in need or act as distributors. “We don’t want to decide who lives and who dies,” the CEO said. In a bidding war without federal guidance, “everyone is going to overbuy and overpay. That is the definition of the tragedy of the commons. Everyone accidentally creates a worse outcome for everybody.”
Boehler made it clear that he viewed agencies like FEMA, with their deep reserves of experience, as too slow and cumbersome to respond to the pandemic. “FEMA is set up to respond to hurricanes,” as he told Milken. But the coronavirus is like “hurricanes in every one of the 50 states and the two territories at the same time.”
When it comes to the pandemic response, Boehler has become Kushner’s key aide-de-camp. He has had a hand in everything from the aborted testing plan in April to the push in late August to approve convalescent plasma therapy over the objections of officials at the National Institutes of Health, including Dr. Anthony Fauci. According to some colleagues and friends, Boehler is just the kind of person you’d want involved in the government’s response. Kushner “wisely recognized that Adam Boehler knows a lot about health care,” said Dr. Bob Kocher, partner at the health care venture capital firm Venrock, who helped overhaul California’s system for COVID-19 diagnostic testing and interacted with Boehler during that work.
For all his talents, however, Boehler’s track record leaves much to be desired. A survey of initiatives bearing his fingerprints reveals that, at a time when Americans desperately needed a large-scale intervention to protect the health of the most vulnerable among us, he and Kushner expended valuable time on political favors and blame-shifting exercises.
Not much about the White House response to the COVID-19 pandemic went according to plan, but the Trump administration did succeed in one venture: stockpiling ventilators. Even if congressional investigators later found that a deal struck by trade adviser Peter Navarro to buy 43,000 ventilators from a Dutch company cost the U.S. Treasury half a billion dollars more than it should have.
By the end of April, unfortunately, the medical community had determined that ventilated COVID-19 patients often had worse outcomes than patients who were simply given supportive oxygen. With the machines falling out of favor among doctors, the U.S. found itself in possession of a surplus. The question then became: What to do with them?
The U.S. Agency for International Development, known as USAID, is headquartered two blocks south of the White House, at 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue. Traditionally, USAID has focused on such humanitarian pursuits as battling starvation, protecting vulnerable populations from deadly diseases, and supporting democratic transitions. In 2016 alone, according to its website, the agency helped feed more than 53 million people in 47 different countries. In late May 2020, its staffers were busy aiding Uzbekistan after a dam collapse and helping governments in Africa manage COVID-19 outbreaks.
So it came as a surprise when, without explanation, USAID got a new and urgent mission at the direction of the White House’s National Security Council. On May 20, an exasperated USAID official, Peter Mamacos, shared the news in a Skype meeting of government officials: The agency had been instructed to ship more than 200 ventilators to Russia, according to notes taken by a participant on the call, which Vanity Fair has obtained. Furthermore, the delivery had to be prioritized over any of the agency’s other work.
The order had been relayed from President Trump to his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, who then routed it through the National Security Council. The directive came just days after a May 7 phone call between Trump and Vladimir Putin. “USAID was given no discretion in any of this,” said one government official with knowledge of the directive. “It was deemed a priority to give vents to Russia.”
Over the following weeks officials at USAID scrambled to fulfill the mysterious order. Doing so pulled resources and staff hours away from the agency’s core humanitarian mission, and came at the expense of poorer countries with far more limited resources.
This was especially hard to swallow when the ask itself looked like a political favor. When USAID officials objected, they were told by NSC staffers, “These decisions are being made at the White House,” according to the official with knowledge of the demand. More specifically, they were told that Boehler was “the one calling the shots.”
The urgent order disrupted USAID’s detailed plans to ship ventilators to dozens of other countries. Russia “seemed to be first in line” and “got prioritized ahead of a lot of other countries,” said the government official with knowledge of the demand.
This was no simple mail drop either. The ventilators, a number of which had proprietary parts, had to be reconfigured to work with Russian power sources. That expensive and time-consuming extra step was doubly ironic to those who recalled that, on April 1, Russia had delivered 45 ventilators to the United States without bothering to refit them for American power sources. They were the same type of faulty ventilator believed to have sparked fires in Russian hospitals.
The total cost of sending the ventilators to Russia was $3.46 million, but that doesn’t account for the impact on morale at an agency whose staff signed up to help the poor, not to perform a favor for a strategic rival flush with oil money. (In response to a request for comment, a senior administration official said, “At the time, the COVID-19 outbreak was worsening in Russia, which had the second-highest number of cases in the world and the highest number of cases in Europe. In response to President Putin’s request for assistance, President Trump offered to donate and deliver 200 ventilators to the Russian people.” A second senior administration official, who was involved in the efforts, said, “All international ventilator efforts, to dozens of countries, were decided by an interagency group that included NSC, State, and USAID.”)
Both Democratic and Republican members of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees USAID’s spending reportedly objected to the ventilator shipment. As one Democratic congressional aide put it, “It was inexplicable and a bad idea for the administration to do this as a favor to Putin, but USAID was forced to by the White House.”
Of all the aborted efforts to secure America’s supply chain of essential lifesaving supplies, no deal has blown up more spectacularly than the one to turn an aging camera film company, Eastman Kodak, into an American manufacturer of ingredients for low-cost generic drugs. It was overseen by Boehler in his official role as CEO of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation.
The DFC is effectively a government lending bank that was established in 2019 by combining two entities, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and the Development Credit Authority, previously housed in USAID. It was born out of a rare bipartisan interest in countering China’s influence around the globe, but under Boehler’s leadership, the agency’s priorities have mystified government bureaucrats—and disappointed members of the foreign-development corps that worked to create it in the first place. Boehler “doesn’t have a development agenda,” said one former Trump administration official who is an expert in international development work. “He has an Adam agenda.”
In late April government officials preparing for the upcoming G20 summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and the G7 summit, which has been postponed, were instructed by a White House assistant to insert language about the DFC into pandemic-preparedness documents that would be shared with foreign ministers.
Given the long-standing prohibition against naming specific programs or projects in G20 materials, the requested language—an infomercial of sorts for the DFC—baffled and troubled officials. The language stated: “The Development Finance Corporation, and U.S. Export Import Bank, an incentive fund, will establish a clear role for engagement with U.S. private sector firms, faith-based organizations, and international entrepreneurs.”
After a back-and-forth among officials from the Departments of State, Treasury, and Health and Human Services, the language was struck. One official familiar with the discussions said, “We are exceedingly careful because we don’t know what in the blazing [hell] DFC is. We find it inserted in the most bizarre places.”
On May 14, President Trump signed an executive order that essentially transferred the powers of the Defense Production Act to Boehler directly, allowing the CEO of the DFC to bolster “the domestic production of strategic resources needed to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, or to strengthen any relevant domestic supply chains.” The executive order gave Kushner’s former roommate access to $100 million of the $1 billion allocated to the Department of Defense under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to bolster domestic supply chains.
Boehler’s first announcement under the order, on July 28, was a splashy press event announcing a letter of interest to grant a $765 million loan to Eastman Kodak in order for it to remake itself as a manufacturer of pharmaceutical ingredients and return drug making to U.S. shores.
The deal’s origins had been far less ambitious, Vanity Fair has learned. In late March, shortly after President Trump first declared from the White House podium that an old malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine, could be a game changer in the treatment of COVID-19, an Eastman Kodak executive reached out to officials at the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. The executive asked if the film company could “donate some of their manufacturing capability/capacity” to the cause of addressing chloroquine shortages, a BARDA official told a colleague, according to an email obtained by Vanity Fair. (Hydroxychloroquine eventually fell out of favor after studies found it to be ineffective against COVID-19 and potentially hazardous to patients.)
By mid-April, Kodak, which has a large chemical plant in Rochester, New York, was circulating a relatively modest proposal to the Food and Drug Administration and BARDA, which Vanity Fair has obtained, seeking $15.3 million in federal support to make raw materials for hydroxychloroquine. That amount would “address the gap between current market prices in India and China compared to the costs associated with producing this intermediate within the United States,” the proposal stated.
Primary Documents: Eastman Kodak’s Original, Much More Modest Proposal
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Yet within two months that nominal proposal had turned into a monster deal. Given Eastman Kodak’s limited drug-making experience, it was surprising, to say the least, when the DFC signed off on Eastman Kodak becoming a facility for active pharmaceutical ingredients and continuous manufacturing, a faster, high-tech system of drug making that it had “zero experience with,” said a drug-manufacturing expert familiar with the company’s proposal to the government. “It is a huge leap going from key starting materials,” which Kodak had originally proposed, “to [active ingredients] and a further leap to move from batch to continuous production.”
In fact, Vanity Fair has learned, Eastman Kodak was so untested when it came to making drug ingredients that the company’s head of government relations, Kristin Calabrese Williams, wrote to a government health official in March saying that the company would need a “waiver from the FDA’s requirements” to ensure drug safety.
But Peter Navarro, Trump’s trade adviser, had urged Eastman Kodak executives to “think bigger” in a May 22 phone call, according to a detailed report on the deal prepared by outside lawyers at the request of Eastman Kodak.
Behind the scenes Kodak had to line up a customer base as a condition of the deal, and so signed a letter of interest to supply active ingredients to a new low-cost generic manufacturer called Phlow, which had been awarded a $354 million government contract in May to manufacture generic drugs in short supply.
“Addressing the unprecedented challenges we face today—and preparing for future crises—requires innovative ideas and partnerships,” Boehler said in a press statement. “Today, we are bringing together the significant resources and expertise of the private sector and U.S. Government.”
However, the announcement soon found itself in the glare of unwelcome press attention and scrutiny from the Securities and Exchange Commission, which began probing suspicious early stock option grants to Eastman Kodak executives. By August 9, the deal had been put on hold amid widespread recriminations. The DFC’s inspector general is now reviewing the deal.
In a statement to Vanity Fair, a DFC spokesperson said that the agency “followed its normal, career-driven process and paused when concerns were raised, as we would with any deal. DFC is responding to the I.G.’s request for information.”
As the White House pandemic response spiraled into chaos, Boehler’s job apparently expanded to include running after Kushner with a dustpan to clean up messes.
When a South Carolina doctor, Jeffrey Hendricks, tried to bring genuine leads on protective equipment to the administration’s attention, like N95 masks for sale in China, he found himself passed from one volunteer to the next in Kushner’s consultant task force. “It was obvious I was dealing with young kids,” he said. In his effort to get someone—anyone—in government to pay attention, he ended up in touch with the New York Times.
On May 5, the Times published an article under the headline: “How Kushner’s Volunteer Force Led a Fumbling Hunt for Medical Supplies.” The article painted a devastating picture of dysfunction and cronyism under Kushner and Baitel’s watch. In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Dr. Hendricks said he felt badly enough about the article that he texted Baitel, offering to make a clarifying statement.
Shortly afterward Hendricks was contacted by Boehler, who wanted to take him up on his offer: “‘Jared would appreciate it. The president would appreciate it,’” Hendricks said Boehler told him. As Hendricks worked on his statement, “Adam called me 25 times in the next 24 hours,” the doctor recalled.
In the back-and-forth that ensued, Hendricks reminded Boehler of the supplies and said, “I am a physician with a verified lead.”
He said Boehler reassured him, “All your leads and contracts are in play.” In the end, however, nobody at the White House proved interested in Hendricks’s supplies. (A senior administration official told Vanity Fair that the masks Hendricks sourced were overpriced and were not actual N95s, which offer the best protection.)
They were, however, interested in his statement. Hendricks was stunned when the White House released it to news organizations. “I am a nobody in North Carolina, now credited with releasing a statement on behalf of the White House,” Hendricks said, adding, “It was six weeks of 24/7 work in hopes of being able to do something meaningful and helpful.” The “disappointment” left him feeling “let down.”
In late April, during an appearance on Fox & Friends, one of his father-in-law’s favorite television programs, Kushner hailed the Trump administration’s coronavirus response as a “great success story,” predicting that by July the country would be “really rocking again.”
That “Mission Accomplished”–style boast has proven to be spectacularly wrong. The federal government’s aimless response has left Americans with days-long delays in getting test results, confusion about how to return safely to school and work, and continued outbreaks, long after other countries—including China itself—have returned to relative normal. In the end there will be only one metric by which the federal government’s COVID response is measured: Did it save, or cost, lives?
Despite Kushner’s boasts, his more competent former roommate Boehler has been “super frustrated [with the] absolute ineptitude of the federal response,” said a source in the private sector with whom he interacts frequently. “He’s deeply troubled that it’s such a mess.”
In a statement to Vanity Fair, Boehler said, “I’m proud of the work that we did in the face of this crisis and the lives that were saved as a result.”
Many of those who worked hard early to mobilize the private sector to assist the federal government find the results “heartbreaking,” said Eric Ries, CEO of the Long-Term Stock Exchange, an exchange that pairs companies with long-term investors. “We mobilized thousands of volunteers,” said Ries, recalling the outpouring of goodwill at a time when thousands of idle textile factories all over America could have manufactured masks.
“It’s like a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington story,” added Ries, “but at the end the people still died.”
“That’s Their Problem”: How Jared Kushner Let the Markets Decide America’s COVID-19 Fate | Vanity Fair

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