Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and a senior adviser, has created his own team of government allies and private industry representatives to work alongside the administration’s official coronavirus task force, adding another layer of confusion and conflicting signals within the White House’s disjointed response to the crisis.
But Kushner’s team is causing confusion among many officials involved in the response, who say they are unsure who is in charge given Kushner’s dual role as senior adviser and Trump family member. Some have privately dubbed his team a “shadow task force” whose requests they interpret as orders they must balance with regular response efforts.
Some members of Kushner’s team are working out of offices on the seventh floor of Health and Human Services headquarters — one floor above the office of HHS secretary Alex Azar — while others are working out of an office in the West Wing of the White House, officials said.
They include representatives of companies such as UPS, FedEx and Flatiron Health, as well as Kushner allies inside the government such as Brad Smith, director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation.
Two senior officials said some government officials have become increasingly confused as they have received emails from private industry employees on Kushner’s team and have been on conference calls with them, unsure what their exact role is in the government response. Several people involved in the response said the involvement of outside advisers — who are emailing large groups of government employees from private email addresses — also raises legitimate security concerns about whether these advisers are following proper government protocols.
“We don’t know who these people are,” one senior official said. “Who is this? We’re all getting these emails.”
Kushner defended his role in an interview, saying his team’s goal was to bring “an entrepreneurial approach” to the crisis.
“We’re getting things done in record speeds and are doing everything possible to avoid damage and mitigate the negative impacts,” Kushner said. “In America, some of our best resources are in our private sector. The federal government is not designed to solve all our problems; a lot of the muscle is in the private sector and there’s also a lot of smart people.”
This account of Kushner’s involvement in the administration’s coronavirus response effort is based on interviews with 10 senior administration officials and people familiar with the effort, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal dynamics and speak candidly.
Katie Miller, a spokeswoman for Vice President Pence, who is heading the official task force, dismissed concerns over Kushner’s growing role.
“For those who are involved in the effort, they aren’t confused,” Miller said. “For those who deal with this day-to-day, the structure is quite clear.”
Kushner said he is “closely collaborating” with Pence, whom he talks to “ten times a day.”
Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, also praised Kushner’s ability to enlist companies and individuals outside government to help in the response.
“The White House recognizes many solutions we will need today and tomorrow to combat this virus reside in the private sector and Jared has been essential in bringing those insights to critical discussions,” she wrote in an email.
But Kushner operates from a nearly untouchable perch within the White House hierarchy, which has worried some officials. Some aides say that regardless of the official organization chart, they know that Kushner can walk into the Oval Office when he wants or call the president late at night, allowing him a final private word after the routine meetings have ended.
The president has grown frustrated with him at times — including over his widely criticized Oval Office address last week, which Kushner helped write — but he remains family and so far has outlasted and outmaneuvered internal rivals.
Kushner — who already has an overly large portfolio, which had become the subject of mockery by his critics — did not become involved in the virus response until last week, at the request of Pence’s chief of staff. Kushner had previously counseled the president that the media and some in the administration were overreacting to the threat of the virus.
Kushner helped write Trump’s widely panned prime-time Oval Office address last week that sent markets into a free fall, pushed Trump to ban travel from Europe and orchestrated a Rose Garden news conference last Friday where Trump announced a ramped-up testing effort that turned out to be in only the early stages of development.
Trump announced that Google was developing a website where Americans could provide their symptoms, find out whether they needed to be tested and then be directed to a testing site near their homes that retailers including Target, CVS and Walgreens would help set up. But several of the companies quickly distanced themselves from the claims, and little has come of the efforts so far.
Two officials said Kushner was the one who called the various company executives and convinced them to come to Washington to meet and discuss the initiative. While the announcement was premature, they said getting the president to hold the news conference helped focus attention on the issue.
Kushner’s team is primarily focused on getting the testing project launched by the end of this week in “hot spot” areas with large outbreaks, such as Seattle, the San Francisco Bay area and New York City, officials said. The team is also focused on procurement issues, particularly related to the nasal swabs needed to conduct the diagnostic tests, which officials have warned could face shortages as the number of tests expands.
“The government is designed to do certain things in certain ways, but this is not a usual circumstance,” Kushner said. “I’m just trying to establish a faster decision cadence, so we can empower them to isolate the problems, agree on the proposed solutions and then empower the proper government department to move quickly.”
The team includes Kushner allies such as Smith and Adam Boehler, chief executive of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, as well as a host of private industry representatives who Kushner believes can more quickly solve the testing issue than the government officials who have been overseeing it for the past two months.
Nat Turner, chief executive of Flatiron Health, a health-care technology company focused on cancer research, as well as some of his employees are key members of Kushner’s team and are working out of HHS, officials said. Flatiron Health confirmed it was working on an HHS project. Kushner also brought in employees from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to embed with his team at HHS, and has called UPS and FedEx to help work on logistics issues, while still working with retail executives who are key to the testing initiative, two administration officials said.
Walmart is one of the retailers that plan to participate in providing coronavirus testing, a representative said Wednesday, “working with the federal, state and local officials to finalize operational details of our first pilot sites.”
There have been growing pains within the West Wing and agencies as Kushner largely oversees testing and Pence’s team runs broader aspects of the response, including public relations, public-health guidelines to mitigate the spread of the virus and emergency preparedness to ensure states have the resources they need.
Some officials involved in the coronavirus efforts said they do not know who is in charge and whether Pence’s team has been sidelined. Three senior officials involved in the response said Kushner was generally letting the task force know what he was doing, but that they did not know precisely what he was working on. Kushner regularly briefs the president separately from the rest of the task force, one official said.
One potential conflict for Kushner is the fact that Oscar, a health insurance company co-founded by Kushner’s younger brother, Joshua, last week launched its own digital portal that helps direct people to virus testing centers and assess their own risk of becoming infected. A spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment, including about whether Oscar plans to seek a government contract.
Richard Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and the former chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, said one key consideration of involving the private sector in any virus response is ensuring that government officials who own any stock in the companies recuse themselves from decision-making.
“The first concern is to make sure no government officials are participating in those discussions that own stock in any of those companies, because if they do or their spouse do, there’s going to be a lot of trouble,” Painter said.
But, he added, as long as “you clear out the conflicts, then yes, this is something that’s going to happen. This is going to be necessary. On any kind of emergency, we do use the private sector, especially in wartime.”