Trump administration villains flit in and out of the limelight depending on what particular disaster is most visibly unfolding at any moment. Sometimes these are members of his Cabinet, receiving more coverage because of their corruption or because they’re suddenly in charge of baby jails; many fade away because they end up resigning, once Trump gets sick of the bad press or feels they’re insufficiently loyal. Others stick around permanently, like Stephen Miller, absorbing (or perhaps feeding off) wave after wave of criticism. Perhaps the most stubbornly stuck-on piece of chewed gum on the White House walls has been Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, who, it is always necessary to point out, had no experience in anything like government before being catapulted to one of the most important roles in the administration.
Kushner may resemble the kind of overgrown intern who arrives at the office on the insistence of his powerful Daddy (in-law) and sticks around far too long. He is instantly recognizable to anyone who has worked with a nepotism hire as the insufferable product of the fake meritocracy, which rewards only rich people and their dull children (and those who flatter them). Yet it’s long past time to recognize that the worst thing about Kushner is not how he stumbled headlong into this powerful position, but the damage he’s done since arriving. The role he has played during the coronavirus pandemic demonstrates how he’s no mere hapless victim of nepotistic circumstance, but an active villain in his own right.
Much attention has been focused on Kushner’s status as a kind of pretender to the throne of Trump’s right-hand man, for good reason. He is easily mocked as a J. Crew mannequin brought to life, or perhaps as a vain prince about to be cursed by a wizard in a forest, or just as a dickhead in a flak jacket. He has Big Draco Malfoy Energy. But this kind of criticism can accidentally imply that had Trump chosen a close adviser for the “right” reasons, that adviser would necessarily be better for the country. We know this is not true. Trump, after all, picked Stephen Miller. He has picked countless corrupt and self-serving aides whose goal in government, if it isn’t entirely to enrich themselves, is to make life harder for various classes of oppressed people while making it easier and more profitable for the uberwealthy. Kushner may have gotten there through marriage, but he’s not so different from the rest of the office.
Early on in the pandemic, The Spectator reported that Kushner had asked his brother’s father-in-law, Kurt Kloss, for recommendations on responding to the pandemic: Kloss, an emergency room doctor, in turn asked a 22,000-member Facebook group, “Bad Ass Fucking Emergency Room Doctor,” for help. “Please only serious responses,” Kloss wrote. In another post, Kloss asked for a “name and contact for Disaster Medicine leader.” We can only hope that one of his fellow doctors suggested Dr. Nick Riviera, reachable at 555-NICK.
A top White House adviser asking the first doctor he can personally think of for advice on addressing a global pandemic is obviously a sign of how desperately pathetic our government is. But sadder still is that some of the Bad Ass Doctors’ better suggestions have not even been implemented, or were implemented too late. Kloss posted a summary of the ideas he had gleaned from the group’s efforts, including nationalizing the production of personal protective equipment, drive-through testing capability, and “Locking down Nursing Homes require all caregivers in full gear and frequent testing.”
By April 9, a little under a month after Kloss’s posts, the site GoodRx listed only 536 drive-through testing sites nationwide, which is one per 611,000 Americans. That is like expecting the entire population of Baltimore to drive through one site. As Slate reported this week, some of the national pharmacy chains that Trump promoted in a press conference still have no testing sites available in many states. We never nationalized production of PPE, and in fact states have had to resort to extraordinary measures, like sneaking in masks on the New England Patriots’ plane, to get it. Indeed, it was Jared Kushner himself who outrageously said that the federal stockpile of equipment was “not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use.” Jared’s entire role in the administration is to just apply his big Kushner brain to every inefficiency. In this instance, that brain came back with: “Just let the vital equipment molder in a warehouse.”
The situation in nursing homes is far from locked down: One-third of all Covid-19 deaths have occurred in nursing homes, and in some states, as many as half. CNN reported this week that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has received hundreds of complaints from nursing home workers, including that they were told not to tell authorities about Covid-19 deaths. Even in states like Rhode Island that have been more aggressive, ProPublica reported, efforts have “been hampered by national shortages of testing supplies, the time needed to ramp up testing capacity locally, delays in getting test results, and changing protocols about who should be tested.” Precisely the sorts of things that a federal coronavirus task force and its elfin leader should be focused on, in other words.
We genuinely might be better off if Kurt Kloss and his Facebook group were in charge of the coronavirus outbreak. What explains Kushner’s inability to act on these things? As simple and satisfying as the answer may be, it isn’t just pure incompetence. Even someone very stupid can recognize when they’re in over their head; even a baby can call for its mother. It would have been very possible to bring in more outside experts, including, perhaps, the same pandemic response team that Trump disbanded early in his presidency.
Worse still, there is much evidence to suggest that Kushner’s failure to respond to the pandemic is intentional. The Financial Times reported this week that Kushner argued early on that “testing too many people, or ordering too many ventilators, would spook the markets and so we just shouldn’t do it.” This is not a case of helpless incapability but of actively choosing a more deadly path because of his ideology and his class status. According to The New York Times, Kushner was “deeply involved” in pushing Trump to announce a Google website for coronavirus testing which, as we now know, never existed. Is it incompetence to tell the president to announce a website that doesn’t exist, or is it a malicious effort to distract from the reality of our situation—and increase his own power?
Another report from The New York Times laid bare the way Kushner’s “volunteer force,” made up of Ivy League grads and big tech alums in their twenties who ended up forwarding completely fraudulent offers of supplies to the administration, can fairly be seen as an example of bumbling incompetence. But it was also a choice that Kushner made. It’s not just that he is too stupid to use the resources that are right in front of him; he actively believes that people who come from investment firms and consulting groups are inherently better than government bureaucrats who have spent decades applying their relevant experience to solving problems. Kushner seems to view the country’s needs as an opportunity for him to enlarge his personal LinkedIn network. So while the rest of us are experiencing the coronavirus pandemic as a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, Kushner has treated it as a rosy opportunity to expand his own power in the administration and make new business connections. He’s working on a long-term project to enrich himself once his time in Washington ends, while the simple act of buying groceries becomes a deadly prospect for both shoppers and store-workers.
As Adam Serwer and I have both argued, the Trump administration’s determination to reopen the economy despite mounting deaths, and without building the kind of testing capacity that could allow us to move toward a safe reopening, can be attributed to the fact that the pandemic is killing black and Hispanic people at a far greater rate than white people. It is this indifference that explains why Jared Kushner might be more worried about spooking the stock market than ramping up testing, or stacking his little task force with Wall Street brats who are too young to have used a landline phone. All of the death and misery is theoretical to him—until it reaches the Hamptons, at least.
The classic question concerning those in power—are they evil or stupid?—is one that must be answered with a clear “all of the above” regarding the Trump administration as a whole, and with Kushner specifically. The federal response to the coronavirus pandemic has been a deadly blend of incompetence and malice—but with Kushner, it’s as if the two were put in a Vitamix and transformed into a horrible smoothie, rather than made into a salsa where the individual bits of bad and dumb are still visible. We can no longer tell where the stupidity ends and the evil begins. Jared Kushner may well be very stupid, incompetent, and unqualified for the job he holds. But what’s truly dangerous about him is what he believes and what he seeks to achieve. If Daddy’s Boy is good at anything, he is good at getting what he wants. Best not get in the way.