Cartoon by Dan Wasserman

Lawmakers Want to Know: WTF Is Jared Kushner Doing?

By Alison Durkee 

Vanity Fair: White House adviser and First Son-in-Law Jared Kushner has been taking some time from his busy schedule of achieving peace in the Middle East and fixing immigration to lend a hand on the coronavirus pandemic in recent weeks, creating his own “shadow task force” and jumping into the federal government’s botched effort to distribute life-saving medical equipment. But as with much of Kushner’s work, it’s not totally clear what his actual role is in all of this—and whether or not he’s screwing everything up. Democratic lawmakers are asking FEMA to give some clarity into the agency’s coronavirus response and Kushner’s role within it, as two House committees sent a letter Tuesday to FEMA administrator Peter T. Gaynor that asks the agency to turn over documents and communications about their efforts to acquire and distribute medical equipment.

Reps. Bennie Thompson and Carolyn Maloney, who chair the House Committees on Homeland Security and Oversight and Reform, respectively, wrote in their letter that they want to better “understand current federal processes” for getting medical equipment like personal protective equipment and ventilators to states and territories, given the current issues plaguing the system. One area of particular interest is “the role of Jared Kushner in managing FEMA’s operational efforts,” seeing as how the First Son-in-Law—who has no background in public health and solicited suggestions for the coronavirus response via Facebook group—is “unclear about basic facts.” The lawmakers wrote that they “do not understand” Kushner’s supposedly “integral” role in the agency's work, noting the adviser’s recent false assertion that the Strategic National Stockpile of medical equipment is “supposed to be our stockpile—it’s not supposed to be state stockpiles that they then use.” Kushner, as the lawmakers describe, has also garnered concern by shrugging off governors’ pleas for ventilators and insisting he knows better what each state needs. “I’m doing my own projections, and I’ve gotten a lot smarter about this. New York doesn’t need all the ventilators,” Kushner said at a White House meeting, my colleague Gabriel Sherman reported, before saying at a recent press briefing that some governors are just poor “managers” who “don’t know what’s in their state.”

One issue of major concern regarding Kushner’s role at FEMA—where the New York Times reports he has parachuted in and “embedded dozens of political appointees and recruits from the private sector” alongside the agency’s career officials—is the process of actually getting states the medical supplies they need. While states have been fighting against each other and the federal government for supplies, FEMA has been acting to bring in more PPE to the U.S. through a Kushner-led effort called Project Airbridge that partners with private companies to fly in much-needed medical supplies. But, as the lawmakers note, there are reportedly some major issues with the agency’s workflow. FEMA has reported that the agency does not actually know how much PPE is being sent on the Project Airbridge flights until they’re loaded overseas, which Thompson and Maloney say makes it “unclear” how federal authorities determine where to send the flights to, if they don’t actually know what supplies will be available. The Times also reports that the federal government is seizing or canceling PPE orders placed by states—despite telling the states that they should be getting their own supplies—since the Airbridge strategy requires distributors to send half of their shipments to whatever regions the federal government has prioritized, with only the other half going to companies or states that had actually placed orders. And what areas the federal government deems a priority appears to be shaded by personal politics, as the Times notes that Kushner has pushed supplies to states that have happened to get President Donald Trump on the phone, even if they haven’t submitted formal requests. “It would be like high school cafeteria drama if it weren’t life or death,” political consultant Jared Leopold, the former communications director for the Democratic Governors Association, told the Times.

As a result, Thompson and Maloney are asking FEMA to turn over key documents and information by April 15, including communications between FEMA employees and Kushner; flight information for Project Airbridge flights; and the “protocols, policies, and processes” for acquiring and distributing the medical equipment. Beyond the Trump administration’s famous refusal to participate in Democrat-led congressional investigations, however, there may be an issue when it comes to FEMA actually having Kushner’s communications to turn over. The Times reports that the Kushner team has come under fire for using lax communication practices that are “not secure and violate federal laws intended to preserve such communications” as they carry out their coronavirus efforts, like holding high-level meetings using—and, yes, using private email accounts. “If there was ever a time we need records and transparency, this is it,” Noah Bookbinder, Executive Director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said in a statement about Kushner’s task force seemingly violating the Presidential Records Act. “There is no excuse for hiding information from the public that affects their lives in an extraordinary time.”