Jared Kushner’s coronavirus response team, we learned this week, is fumbling because it’s largely staffed with inexperienced volunteers. Of course it is. It’s being run by one.

Kushner’s lack of experience and expertise has not been remedied in any way during his now three-plus years in the White House. After bungling many high-profile efforts to address various problems and often making them worse (see, Middle East, peace in), he keeps being handed more responsibilities with higher stakes. He has wasted taxpayer resources and endangered lives trying on policy roles usually reserved for the country’s top experts with the sophistication of a child playing dress-up, cavalierly discarding them when he can’t fit into them.

There have been no consequences. In any normal administration, an adviser with Kushner’s string of failures would be fired, but Kushner, like his father-in-law, keeps crediting himself with imaginary successes. Most recently, he declared the administration’s coronavirus response “a great success story,” a mind-boggling assertion that raises the question of what, if anything, Kushner thinks failure looks like. He has also continued to bash the actual experts, disputing their assessments and implying that they, not he, are the amateurs, and he is here to clean up their mess.

Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner on April 2 said the government’s emergency medical stockpile is “not supposed to be states’ stockpiles." (The Washington Post)

This is basically Kushner’s modus operandi, and it’s painfully familiar to me because he was my boss when I was the editor in chief of the New York Observer, which he had bought when he was 25. (I’ve written before about what he was like as a businessman.) One of the more memorable instances of this I witnessed was at a memorial service for a beloved longtime Observer staffer, Tyler Rush, who’d joined the paper well before Kushner bought it. When it came time for Kushner to say a few words, he launched into a supercilious monologue crediting himself with finally getting the paper published on time after what he described as chaos when he arrived. He also told an anecdote about Rush approaching him when he bought the paper to note that his staff was underpaid, which was true at the time, and true when I took the editor job years later. Kushner congratulated himself during the memorial for giving Rush and his production team the only raise that year because “unlike everyone else,” Rush hadn’t been lying to Kushner.

This line didn’t land the way Kushner hoped, because no one had been lying. Everyone was underpaid. But he didn’t like what he heard from the other staffers, so he proceeded to make his own assessment about what their experience and expertise were worth. This was not based on market comparables or the technical intricacies of a job, apparently, but his personal valuation of what a writer or a production manager or salesperson was worth — which always, at least in my conversations with him, seemed to be rooted in an idea that people who choose occupations that are not explicitly and primarily designed to make money were dilettantes of a sort, and essentially unserious. Why would you choose to be a journalist when you could make so much more money as a commercial real estate developer? The conclusion he drew was that people who chose less remunerative career paths had not figured out how the world worked. To use a phrase he routinely deployed, they “didn’t get it.” And as such, they were disposable workers whose knowledge base could probably be replaced by a rigorous Google search. If their expertise was actually valuable, if they were so smart, they’d be monetizing it better.

The more grotesque and repulsive aspect of this incident was that Kusher thought this self-aggrandizing nonsense was an appropriate eulogy, but that, too, is in keeping with how he operates. When I knew him, he seemed constitutionally incapable of considering the humanity of other people as a starting point. Relationships were primarily transactional, and this failure of empathy permeated everything he did. He could not register the grief of the people in the room that day for the same reason that he apparently can’t register the grief millions of Americans are experiencing now as their lives are upended by covid-19 and people they love become sick and die. It’s what enables him to lie on camera about the state of what’s happening — to view the coronavirus response as an opportunity to trade favors and not a necessary and vital obligation of the federal government — and why he will cast himself as a begrudging custodian of problems other people created even as those problems metastasize all around him as a direct consequence of his mismanagement.

But he’s in good company in the Trump White House with that attitude. When Kushner says the coronavirus response is going well, he’s echoing the equally preposterous rhetoric of his father-in-law, who says the same thing in any medium or venue that will amplify him. This bubble of delusion extends to the rest of the family, too. Ivanka Trump’s equally fruitless government tenure is marked primarily by her ability to take credit for family-leave policy work other people have done and her father’s insistence that she’s created 15 million jobs, even though there’s little evidence that she’s created more than one, which doesn’t even pay: senior White House adviser.

On some level, Trump and Kushner appear to believe that whether they are really doing their jobs is irrelevant. But they have no reason to believe otherwise; they’ve never faced any consequences for not doing what they’re supposed to do except bad press. (Or, in Trump’s case, an impeachment that quickly led to a pro forma acquittal.) As of today, Kushner’s string of failures have not resulted in any kind of demotion or reprimand, much less dismissal. (Whatever happened to the Office of American Innovation? What has it done? Who’s demanded results?) They act like they think they should get credit for any effort at all, for stooping to bother. (Kushner, in a statement to The Washington Post this week about his task force, bragged about its accomplishments, despite the problems it has run into. “The bottom line is that this program sourced tens of millions of masks and essential PPE in record time and Americans who needed ventilators received ventilators,” he said. “These volunteers are true patriots.”)

Worse, when they fail, the entire executive office apparatus is expected to adapt to their mistakes and bend reality in service of optics. When Kushner stated publicly — and incorrectly — that the national stockpile of medical supplies is “supposed to be our stockpile” and “not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use,” the administration changed the language on federal websites to accommodate his ignorance. This goes beyond the sort of routine movement of goal posts many elected officials engage in when they need to explain their gaffes. This is teleporting the goal posts to an entirely different dimension or denying their existence in the first place. In this alternate universe where Jared Kushner is doing a good job, no identifiable outcomes constitute failure, and everything is, by definition, success.

Defining accomplishment down has deadly consequences in this case. The White House’s failure to provide a coordinated federal response to get personal protective equipment out to states and medical providers or to avail itself of resources designed explicitly for this kind of crisis has already resulted in needless deaths — an especially abhorrent outcome, given our resources and capabilities.

But one of our most important resources in dealing with the pandemic is the knowledge of our public health professionals, supply chain management experts, health care procurement specialists, and the experience of people who have dealt with past outbreaks — exactly the sort of the people whose supposed messes Kushner claims to be cleaning up, despite a résumé with no history of ever meaningfully cleaning up anything and a track record of making more than one mess himself. People like Anthony S. Fauci, whose advice appears to be increasingly disregarded as its potential implications damn the administration’s actions to date and require that they put in more work, not less, and that it all be measurable in terms that concretely define successes and failures. Or like the staffers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose guidelines for how to reopen the economy the White House has moved to shelve for being “overly specific.”

Instead of doing what’s necessary to respond to the pandemic, the White House has chosen to punt and made noise about winding down its covid-19 task force, which under the circumstances is akin to dropping out of a marathon at mile 2.4 and expecting a medal for having made any effort at all. Now that he’s failed to get PPE and ventilators out quickly, Kushner has been tasked with accelerating vaccine development, another job for which he has no qualifications or expertise. The project has been named “Operation Warp Speed,” ostensibly a descriptor of its ambitions for getting a vaccine to market quickly. But if it proceeds the way Kushner’s shadow task force has so far, it may simply describe the velocity with which the task force’s efforts slam into logistical walls because the driver is an amateur who shouldn’t have the keys to begin with.

If that happens, expect it to be cast as a spectacular success. Maybe we never needed a vaccine because herd immunity was the strategy all along. And then Kushner will be given even more responsibility — because in the administration’s perverse calculus, he’s racked up enough failures to earn it.

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