On Thursday, at the daily presidential press conference about the nation’s pandemic response, a new face joined the officials and experts at the podium: Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and White House adviser. In the New York Times Friday, Michelle Goldberg provides a thorough and very critical overview of Kushner’s executive-branch career, portraying him as a self-styled “disruptor” with a penchant for launching ambitious, disorganized, and ultimately unsuccessful projects. Kushner—whose previous jobs were at his father’s real estate company and a weekly newspaper that he purchased at age 25 with what was officially described as his own money—is supposedly in charge of leading “supply chain” issues for the White House at the moment. Goldberg’s column could barely be harsher about the grim possibilities this portends; she writes that it’s “hard to overstate” the extent to which Kushner’s confidence in himself is unearned given the high-profile failures of, for example, Kushner Companies’ 666 Fifth Avenue purchase and the New York Observer’s network of local political sites.
But if the column were your only contact with Kushner’s existence, you still might picture him as something of a TED-style charlatan or ethics-challenged McKinsey-style hustler—someone with no core expertise except making himself sound like a visionary, whose ability to sell and take credit for ambitious plans outstrips his personal commitment or ability to see them through. (Goldberg quotes Politico, for example, as reporting that Kushner has surrounded himself with “outside experts including his former roommate and a suite of McKinsey consultants.”)
As the Thursday White House press conference demonstrated, though, Kushner is, at best, someone who may have watched a TED talk. When he opens his mouth, it is clear that he genuinely knows nothing at all, and that he has likely never, ever done anything except occupy an office at an organization run by either his father or his father-in-law. Here’s the first thing he said on Thursday: “When the vice president first asked me to help on the task force with different tasks, I asked the president what he expected from the task force and how I can best serve him in the task force.” He went on to say “data” 13 times and issue this baffling misstatement of the purpose of the Strategic National Stockpile:
You also have a situation where in some states FEMA allocated ventilators to the states, and you have instances where in cities they’re running out but the state still has a stockpile. And 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.
The law establishing the Strategic National Stockpile doesn’t say states weren’t supposed to be able to access it or that they should keep their own reserves, only that the national stockpile should “optimize the emergency health security of the United States,” i.e., make sure that as many people as possible in the United States can be kept healthy in an emergency. At the very moment Kushner was speaking, the Department of Health and Human Services website’s explanation of the stockpile said it existed for use “in a public health emergency severe enough to cause local supplies to run out.” As GQ’s Laura Basset noticed, though, HHS’s site was then changed on Friday in what appears to be an attempt to match Kushner’s claims about its purpose. Here’s what it now says:
The Strategic National Stockpile’s role is to supplement state and local supplies during public health emergencies. Many states have products stockpiled, as well. The supplies, medicines, and devices for life-saving care contained in the stockpile can be used as a short-term stopgap buffer when the immediate supply of adequate amounts of these materials may not be immediately available.
But this definition—apparently written by someone who doesn’t know how to use commas or how not to use the word immediately twice in one sentence—still conflicts with what Kushner said Thursday, which is that the federal government’s supply isn’t supposed to be used by states. Presumably he meant to suggest, at the press conference, that the stockpile would be used in federally run operations, like the field hospitals being set up by FEMA and the Army. Except those federal facilities were explicitly set up for non-coronavirus patients in order to free up space at existing hospitals. So why, then, would the federal government need any ventilators at all?
In other words, the takeaway from the national medical supply chain czar’s first appearance in public, which took place a month into a medical crisis in which nearly 7,000 Americans have already died, is that he is confused about either what the national emergency medical supply stockpile is supposed to do, what it is doing, or both, or possibly that he is lying about what he thinks it’s supposed to do to cover for the fact that it’s not doing enough of anything.
And that untrue and/or misleading claim—designed to deny the Trump administration’s responsibility for coordinating the national emergency response and to blame the states for not maintaining 50 separate pandemic-management operations—was the only identifiable policy statement to come out of Kushner’s mouth. The rest was a repetitive assortment of abstract buzzwords, whose only purpose was to show that Jared Kushner is operating at the highest level of governmental authority, whether or not he has the first notion about what the government ought to be doing. (Late Friday, Donald Trump announced he would be signing a bill prohibiting the export of needed medical supplies like masks—a response to reports that such products have been being sent steadily out of the country despite shortages in hospitals that have already been treating COVID-19 patients for weeks. It’s the kind of issue a supply-chain czar would ideally have been on top of much earlier.)
“I am very confident,” Kushner said at one point, “that by bringing innovative solutions to these hard problems we will make progress.”
Compared to Jared Kushner, Elizabeth Holmes is Albert Einstein. The American public at least deserves someone better at sounding smart.