The Memo: White House pushes back on Kushner critics

The White House is pushing back on criticism of Jared Kushner’s role in responding to the coronavirus crisis after a sustained barrage of media fire on the president’s son-in-law.

Kushner has been hit for some upbeat comments he has made in interviews — which critics have derided as hopelessly optimistic — as well as alleged shortcomings in the work of the team of volunteers he has headed.

Now the administration is pressing the case in Kushner’s defense, after both The New York Times and The Washington Post reported extensively on the volunteer group.

The administration characterizes that group as a major asset in the race to get various kinds of medical supplies to COVID-19 hot spots amid an unprecedented emergency.

“It is just kind of sad that they are looking for reasons to criticize a very successful effort instead of doing real reporting,” one senior administration official told The Hill. “This was an unusual situation and [the group] did some unconventional things, but ultimately there has been a lot of success.”

President Trump has also joined the pushback himself. At a meeting with GOP lawmakers on Friday, Trump invited Kushner to outline his work on acquiring ventilators and tests.

After he had done so, Trump added, “You’ve done a great job. Some day people are going to appreciate it. They say, ‘Oh, he’s a relation.’ Well if he wasn’t a good relation, I’d get him out of here so fast.”

That comment in itself showed some sensitivity to the criticism. 

The coronavirus crisis has also resurrected the issue that has long flared around Kushner: whether the prominence and centrality of the president’s 39-year-old son-in-law is a simple case of nepotism, or whether that family relationship means he draws unfair criticism by proxy from those ideologically opposed to Trump. 

The Post stated that the reliance on the Kushner-led volunteer group, many of whom are young and whose expertise lies in areas such as consulting and private equity, had the effect of “exacerbating chronic problems in obtaining supplies for hospitals and other needs.”

The Post also was the first to report that a complaint had been filed with the House Oversight and Reform Committee about the group’s work.

The Times story ran under a headline stating that Kushner’s “volunteer force” had “led a fumbling hunt for medical supplies.”

It gave prominence to reports that a spreadsheet used to track tips included a “VIP list” of leads from figures such as conservative activist Charlie Kirk and a former consultant to the NBC reality TV show in which Trump previously starred, “The Apprentice.”

The reporting, in turn, has led to a raft of concerns about the role of volunteers amid the frenetic process of issuing government contracts.

“At a minimum, they are performing essential government functions,” said Anne Weismann, the chief FOIA counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a group that campaigns to reduce the influence of money in politics.

Weisman also noted that had the people involved been full members of the administration, “there are reporting requirements that they would be subject to about their financial holdings. They appear to be exercising procurement authority, so they have access to spending millions of federal dollars and they don’t have any accountability.”

The administration official defended the integrity of the group’s work and cast it as an effort to put private sector expertise to work for the public good. 

The official also argued that complaints about the supposed lack of qualifications of the volunteers were misdirected, since their role was to help procure supplies that medical experts on the official White House task force said they wanted, not to offer any specific medical or scientific expertise.

Administration sources also noted a new statement from one of the people quoted in the Times story — Jeffrey Hendricks, a doctor and the president of M&M labs — who said that there were some pieces in the critical story that were true “and some things that did not fully reflect my experience.”

That will likely not quell the controversy, though, in part because Kushner himself is such a lightning rod. 

The president’s son-in-law has served in the administration from the start, having previously wielded crucial power in then-candidate Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Kushner has been a topic of fascination in several controversies, including his failure to acquire the highest level of security clearance. 

A particular topic of chagrin for critics was his role spearheading the search for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. That effort led to the unveiling of a new peace plan in January, though the effort was received cooly in the Arab world — it was unanimously rejected by the Arab League soon after it was announced — as well as by some Israeli settler groups. 

More generally, however, Kushner’s internal power produces plenty of sniping. Others in Trump World look askance at a figure who they see as operating simultaneously as a shadow chief of staff and a de facto reelection campaign manager. The official campaign manager, Brad Parscale, is a longtime Kushner ally.

Some critics argue that the shadow task force is emblematic of Kushner’s broader pattern of wielding power while remaining outside of official structures — an approach they characterize as seeking power without responsibility.

The administration contests any such characterization, with the senior administration official asserting that the volunteer group led by Kushner was “hiding in plain sight.” 

More broadly, there is also always the question — as there often is in Trump World — of whether internal critics who prefer to make their charges anonymously are motivated by anything of substance, rather than their own envy of his power and influence.

“Very few people, whether they like him or dislike him, could honestly say Jared is an incompetent guy,” one former administration official said in Kushner’s defense. “He is a very competent guy. I don’t believe his work on the coronavirus has hurt anything at all.”

Externally, this person insisted, “I see a lot of the criticism as unfair. It’s people just being critical of him because he’s the president’s son-in-law rather than criticism of anything he has actually done.”

There’s plenty of criticism go around, though. 

Kushner’s comment late last month that the nation could be “really rocking again” by July was widely lambasted by those who said he was offering false hope.

Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty this week characterized the Kushner volunteer group as “making a deadly crisis even deadlier with their amateur hour bungling.”

Other critics, including CREW’s Weismann, say that the coronavirus episode is just one more example of a dangerous pattern.

“Why is someone of his age and background put in charge of bringing peace to the Middle East?” she asked rhetorically. “He failed, and he has now been put in charge of the administration’s COVID-19 response. There is no shortage of experts in the federal government.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency. 

Tags Brad Parscale Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Jared Kushner

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