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

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Katherine Eban reports in 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 on Saturday 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.”

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 . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it unfortunately is depressing albeit important.

And now it looks likely that Republicans will establish a strong conservative majority on the court and at least achieve their goal of ensuring that millions of Americans will lose access to healthcare by bringing down the Affordable Care Act.

Written by Leisureguy

22 September 2020 at 9:05 am

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