The answer is he didn’t. Because Kushner and Trump’s twisted view was that it “wasn’t government’s job” to step in for a nation in crisis. The shortages, the scrambling over supplies at an ever higher price, the nurses who were forced to wear garbage bags and the patients who were turned away by overtaxed hospitals … that was the plan. Infection and death didn’t happen by accident, and it didn’t happen because Trump and Kushner weren’t warned against the consequences of inaction. Suffering was by design.
No matter how many times Trump and his supporters claim “there was no playbook” for the COVID-19 pandemic, there absolutely was. Plans for a government response to this type of pandemic had been written, revised, war gamed, and practiced for decades. It wasn’t the lack of a plan that caused disaster. It was refusal to follow the plan.
Instead, Trump and Kushner decided to do what they had done on many other occasions—ignore the experts. Instead Trump turned the daily COVID-19 briefings into a replacement for his much-missed rallies, while Kushner surrounded himself with a collection of flatterers whose main task seems to have been not only telling him that he was “brilliant” and preventing any effective response. Instead, Kushner blundered between actions based on business connections and personal favors as his inexperienced team nodded along.
That, incredibly enough, resulted in a system where medical supplies were directed to Russia, even as states were still begging. It also resulted in an attempt to obtain a vaccine with a billion dollar bribe—a deal that was collapsed as soon as it leaked.
As Eban recounts, even as the outbreak in the U.S. was racking up thousands of cases a day, and the death toll was mounting, a bipartisan group of both government and business leaders found Kushner utterly unwilling to take action. Not because action wasn’t possible. But because he instead preferred to lecture them on the proper role of government … which didn’t include helping people in an emergency.
In one memorable meeting, Kushner sat enthroned in an oversized chair in a hotel ballroom, surrounded by a team made up of investment bankers and Wall Street acquaintances, and listened as business and government leaders attempted to explain the dire situation. Extreme shortages of basic protective gear and ventilators were leading states to compete against each other in a chaotic market where supplies weren’t getting to those with the greatest need. Thousands of individual hospitals had no single place to report their requirements. Businesses were looking for coordination on how to manage sales. Major had corporations offered to help with manufacturing, but needed direction.
Political leaders appealed to Kushner to have Trump invoke the Defense Production Act, centralize the purchase and distribution of PPE, and turn the government’s power loose on fighting the pandemic. What actually happened shocked everyone. “The federal government is not going to lead this response,” declared Kushner. “It’s up to the states to figure out what they want to do.” Told that central leadership was required, Kushner dismissed the idea. “Free markets will solve this,” he said. “That is not the role of government.”
And when he was told that thousands of people in New York were dying as Governor Cuomo begged for assistance, Kushner was joyfully dismissive. “Cuomo,” he said, “didn’t pound the phones hard enough to get PPE for his state.” And because the governor hadn’t begged hard enough. “His people are going to suffer and that’s their problem.”
Both Kushner and Trump have family, homes, businesses, and tenants in New York. They lived there. They ate, slept, raised families, and enjoyed the life of the city for decades. It was their home. And when that city needed their assistance, they didn’t just refuse to help. They told it to go to hell.
In the end, the behind the scenes view of the pandemic response looks all too much like what was already visible: A sporadic, uncoordinated response where political favors trumped public health and talk was far more abundant than assistance. Donald Trump had the chance to be a national hero, and all it required was that he trust science, trust the experts, and execute a plan that was already in his hands. Instead, he handed off to Kushner, who promptly made the COVID-19 response a party for people who had not the slightest idea how to do anything with government but break it.
As one participant at that hotel room meeting made clear, at the time it was easy to believe Kushner was just an misguided ideologue who was killing people because he couldn’t see past his own stubborn views. In retrospect, it seems a lot more like making people suffer and die was the idea from the outset.