According to President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence is in charge of America’s response to the coronavirus crisis. This choice was, in itself, controversial since Pence has no real experience in this area and his one attempt at dealing with a public health problem as governor of Indiana turned out very poorly. But what many Americans don’t know is that an equally unqualified if apparently even more loyal Trump adherent is secretly running his own coronavirus task force, leaving a series of ethics issues in wake.
An equally unqualified if apparently even more loyal Trump adherent is secretly running his own coronavirus task force.
Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner is running a shadow coronavirus response task force. He’s doing it off the books, with closed-door meetings and private email accounts. Recently, The Atlantic reported that a company co-founded by Kushner’s brother — which used to be partly owned by Jared — developed a government website to direct Americans to coronavirus testing sites at the government’s request. The website was created and then, for reasons that remain unclear, never went public.
This isn’t normal Trump family grift; it is taking place with lives at stake. As the (original) headline of New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg’s column read last week: “Jared Kushner is going to get us all killed.”
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Since the website never officially launched, we didn’t find out about it until after the fact. And there’s still much we don’t know, mainly whether Kushner was involved in trying to direct government business to his family (Oscar Health says it wasn’t paid for the project). While personal and family benefit is the modus operandi of the Trump administration, this goes beyond Trump’s trying to host the G-7 summit at his struggling Doral golf resort. And what’s worse, Kushner is going out of his way not to create government records of his actions, in an apparent violation of multiple laws.
Because this task force isn’t operating publicly, we don’t actually know what Trump’s son-in-law is doing. Think about that. The nation is in crisis, much of it in lockdown, and the man with the president’s ear is essentially operating without accountability. This doesn’t prove that anything nefarious is going on. But if you were going to try to steer emergency government funds into your family’s bank account without people finding out, this is how you’d do it.
What we do know about Kushner’s efforts don’t exactly inspire confidence. The father-in-law of Jared’s brother posted in a Facebook group for doctors, “I have direct channel to person now in charge at White House and have been asked for recommendations.” This is the government equivalent of the kid who doesn’t read the book and writes his book report based on the back cover during the class it’s due. But it also suggests how closely Jared’s brother is tied to the government’s response. Jared Kushner isn’t concerned with creating a firewall between his work and his family — just the opposite.
This isn’t even the first time we’ve seen potential issues with Kushner’s position and a company co-founded by his brother. For one, he’s had a lot of problems with his financial disclosures. One of the more troubling was failing to disclose his co-ownership of Cadre, a real estate investment startup that likely benefited from the opportunity zones program his wife, Ivanka Trump, championed. After refusing to divest from Cadre for years despite controversy, Kushner got permission in March to sell his stake and take advantage of a tax benefit meant to help people divest from assets in which they have a conflict of interest. Why did it take him so long? Perhaps not coincidentally, the value of his shares rose while he refused to divest.
This also isn’t the only way the Kushner family could benefit from the pandemic. While the coronavirus stimulus package blocks money from going to support the president and members of his family, including Kushner, the Kushner family business could benefit from a provision that lets apartment building owners pause federal payments on federal mortgages on low-income housing. And real estate investors (like the Kushners) with major on-paper losses can now stretch them out over years for a big tax break.
We tend to have a short attention span when it comes to Trump family scandals, but Kushner’s past few years prove he is unqualified to be running anything in this administration. Remember that Kushner got his security clearance thanks only to his father-in-law, over the objections of career security officials. Rather than use traditional diplomatic channels, Kushner has reportedly communicated with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over WhatsApp and even kept American staffers out of his meetings with prince. Kushner also has a history of conducting business over private email accounts.
The Trump administration’s solution to everything seems to just be “put Jared in charge of it.” Kushner is currently tasked in some capacity with solving the coronavirus pandemic, ending the opioid crisis, bringing about peace in the Middle East, reforming the government and running the Trump campaign, all out of his White House office.
The Trump administration’s solution to everything seems to just be “put Jared in charge of it.”
Which brings us to one last problem. The thing about Kushner running the campaign from the White House is that there’s a law against that, the Hatch Act. While the act has an exemption that does allow some political activity by senior political appointees paid by the White House, the exemption doesn’t apply to him, as he doesn’t take a salary. Following the law should be the absolute minimum for serving in a high position in government. Meanwhile, Trump’s shift in seriousness regarding the coronavirus, according to a former White House official, has been influenced by his campaign advisers’ fears that his lackluster response will soon hurt him with his base. If Kushner is running both the campaign and the coronavirus response, how much is the former influencing the latter?
Kushner shouldn’t be in the White House. The Trump administration had to overturn nepotism guidelines just to get him in there. Since he’s been there, he’s confirmed every fear about nepotistic appointments — he’s not qualified to do the job he has, but he keeps getting more and more roles and power, culminating in his new role at the center of the pandemic response, where he is reportedly making life-or-death decisions based on what he hears from “friends.” Meanwhile, he’s been making millions on the side, potentially with the help of his office.
The Trump family has repeatedly used the White House to enrich themselves, but this is about more than profits. As the number of coronavirus deaths continues to rise, Jared Kushner’s unqualified, unethical time in the White House has been marked by inaction and personal benefit. And now, it may get people killed.
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Jordan Libowitz is the communications director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a nonpartisan, nonprofit government watchdog dedicated to fighting the influence of money in politics.