House Legislators Want Information on Jared Kushner’s Role in COVID-19 Response
“We are particularly troubled that Mr. Kushner’s work may even involve ‘directing FEMA and HHS officials to prioritize specific requests from people who are able to get Kushner on the phone.’”
White House Senior Advisor Jared Kushner has put his peace plan for the Middle East on hold to help coordinate the White House’s coronavirus response, but some lawmakers aren’t pleased. Reps. Bennie Thompson, D–Miss., and Carolyn Malone, D–N.Y., sent a letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Wednesday to request communication records between Kushner and FEMA employees, Jonathan Allen reported for NBC News.
Ethical Concerns Surrounding Supply
Thomson is chair of the Homeland Security Committee and Maloney heads the Oversight and Government Committee. Together, they delivered the demand with one week for the agency to accommodate their request. In particular, the committee leaders are keen to learn about the role of President Donald Trump’s son-in-law in the allocating of medical equipment such as ventilators and masks.
“We are troubled by reports that Mr. Kushner’s actions — and those of outside advisers he has assembled and tasked — may be ‘circumventing protocols that ensure all states’ requests are handled appropriately,’” they wrote to FEMA. “We are particularly troubled that Mr. Kushner’s work may even involve ‘directing FEMA and HHS (Health and Human Services) officials to prioritize specific requests from people who are able to get Kushner on the phone.’”
In the White House response organized by Kushner, some administrations alleged supplies are allocated not according to which states request them, but by which governor manages to get Trump on the phone. That can often mean placing a call to Kushner or one of his assistants. Once Trump is on the line, the directive is then handed down to Kushner to get supplies to the governor in question.
The sudden, spur-of-the-moment instructions from Kushner to FEMA have caused legislators to question whether the advisor is helping or hurting emergency relief efforts. In a time of limited supplies, places in need could be left waiting as equipment they requested is sent elsewhere.
To help secure more personal protective equipment (PPE), Kushner organized Project Airbridge. The program brings flights from overseas exclusively for private companies. Washington is allowed to determine where 50% of the goods go, NBC News reported.
The committee chairs are seeking information related to Project Airbridge, including manifests and destinations. Furthermore, they requested documentation of all contact between FEMA administrators and private companies which are volunteering their help.
Kushner and his team had worked at FEMA headquarters until Tuesday when a “partner” of the organization tested positive for COVID-19. Now, the team works from the White House. Since joining the administration’s pandemic relief efforts, he has made himself a point of contact for medical organizations and government agencies trying to secure funding and equipment.
“From the White House, you can move a lot faster,” Kushner said in a New York Times interview. “I’ve put members of my team into a lot of components. What we’ve been able to do is get people very quick answers.”
However, Kushner’s management of the emergency from the allocation of resources to the communication methods his team uses has faced scrutiny. A senior official called Kushner’s team a “frat party that descended from a UFO and invaded the federal government.”
He installed friends who in turn have allowed some employees of their affiliated companies to tag along, as in the case of Nat Turner, software entrepreneur, and his former company Flatiron Health. Although Turner sold the company he started, Flatiron employees are involved in relief efforts in Washington.
Kushner also lead a team meeting through FreeConferenceCall.com, which is not a secured, approved West Wing communication protocol. Personal email accoutns also have been used to discuss policies, the New York Times reported.
Gov. Cuomo Praises Kushner
While Kushner’s role at the White House has raised eyebrows in Congress, not all Democrats have judged him as harshly. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has feuded with Trump about the lack of ventilators. However, he had kind words for Kushner.
“He’s been extraordinarily helpful on all of these situations,” Cuomo said.
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley accused the committee chairs of politicizing the pandemic.
“While Democrats sadly continue playing politics, Jared, the task force and the administration have been working around the clock to get lifesaving ventilators and PPE to hospitals and frontline workers throughout the country,” Gidley said.
Federal Medical Database
Kushner is also looking to create a national coronavirus surveillance system. Essentially, his team would establish a database of real-time information including patient locations and bed availability in every hospital in America, according to POLITICO.
The idea would theoretically enable Washington to zero in on virus hotspots and directly more resources to them, Kushner said.
“The goal here is not to have ventilators sitting in a warehouse where you have another state where you have people who need them,” Kushner said during a press briefing last week. “So, what we’re trying to do is make informed, data-driven decisions.”
Some experts have questioned the privacy implications of such a system, however.
“This is a genuine crisis — we have to work through it and do our best to protect people’s health,” said Jessica Rich, a former director of the Federal Trade Commission’s consumer protection bureau. “But doing that doesn’t mean we have to destroy privacy.”
The prospect of creating a centralized database of health information for every American who walks through the doors of a medical facility could echo the Patriot Act, Rich said. The controversial bill was justified based on national security grounds, but has been widely challenged in courts for constitutional and privacy concerns.
“One reason that the government doesn’t have all of this data is there’s a lot of concern about big brother maintaining large databases on every consumer on sensitive issues like health, and for good reason,” Rich said.