When the US coronavirus outbreak began, there were concerns about healthcare workers getting the protective gear they needed.
So the senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of President Donald Trump, formed a group of volunteers to sort through hundreds of leads on personal protective equipment and funnel the most promising ones to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is in charge of distributing supplies to states and medical workers.
But according to a new report by The New York Times, the volunteers were in fact prioritizing tips from close Trump associates, resulting in multiple botched deals.
At the same time, The Times said, experienced vendors were ignored while healthcare workers resorted to making their own protective clothing or risked their lives even more by going without.
The group — made up mostly of young volunteers from the venture capital and private-equity worlds — was led at one point by Rachael Baitel, a 2014 Princeton graduate who previously worked as an assistant to Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and Kushner’s wife.
According to The Times, Baitel told the group to prioritize leads from the politically connected.
It even tracked these tips from close Trump associates and allies on a spreadsheet called “VIP Update,” according to documents and emails seen by The Times.
Among those prioritized were the conservative activist Charlie Kirk, who formed Turning Point USA, and the former “Apprentice” contestant Tana Goertz, who now runs the Women for Trump group, The Times noted.
By giving preference to these VIPs, the federal government ended up making some bad deals.
Perhaps most noteworthy was the $69 million contract given to the Silicon Valley engineer Yaron Oren-Pines to provide 1,000 ventilators to New York state after he tweeted at the president. Oren-Pines never delivered, and now the state is trying to recoup the costs.
In a similar incident, The Times reported that a Pennsylvania dentist named Dr. Albert Hazzouri used his Trump connections to push FEMA to buy from his associates, including a promised 100,000 test kits from Mexico.
But none of his tips actually resulted in a supply contract.
Legitimate vendors with legitimate supplies were ignored
At the same time, legitimate vendors were being ignored.
The Times spoke with Dr. Jeffrey Hendricks, who had connections to manufacturers in China that could provide millions of face masks but recalled struggling to get the volunteer group to consider his offer seriously. He has since sold his supplies, mostly to hospitals in Michigan.
“When I offered them viable leads at viable prices from an approved vendor, they kept passing me down the line and made terrible deals instead,” Hendricks said.
The Times also reported on how the Fox News host Jeanine Pirro secured 100,000 masks for a hospital she favored by repeatedly calling the task-force members, which was confirmed by a separate report in The Washington Post. The Post report added that Pirro’s Fox News colleague Brian Kilmeade also had a request about personal protective equipment fast-tracked.
The White House did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.
Officials who spoke with The Times said the volunteer force may not have been needed had Trump assigned FEMA to lead the coronavirus response earlier than mid-March.
But the lateness at which FEMA joined in the government response meant the agency was desperate for any help acquiring protective gear.
This isn’t the first time Kushner’s shadow coronavirus task force has come under criticism.
In late March, The Post reported that Kushner’s group was causing confusion since it seemed to compete with Vice President Mike Pence’s official White House task force.
The Times reported in early April that Kushner’s group was using a free conference-call website and personal Gmail accounts to arrange meetings and conduct business, with one official calling the group a “frat party.”