This spring, as the United States faced a critical shortage of masks, gloves and other protective equipment to battle the coronavirus pandemic, a South Carolina physician reached out to the Federal Emergency Management Agency with an offer of help.
Dr. Jeffrey Hendricks had longtime manufacturing contacts in China and a line on millions of masks from established suppliers. Instead of encountering seasoned FEMA procurement officials, his information was diverted to a team of roughly a dozen young volunteers, recruited by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and overseen by a former assistant to Kushner’s wife, Ivanka Trump.
The volunteers, foot soldiers in the Trump administration’s new supply-chain task force, had little to no experience with government procurement procedures or medical equipment. But as part of Kushner’s governmentwide push to secure protective gear for the nation’s doctors and nurses, the volunteers were put in charge of sifting through more than a thousand incoming leads, and told to pass only the best ones on for further review by FEMA officials.
As the federal government’s warehouses were running bare and medical workers improvised their own safety gear, Hendricks found his offer stalled. Many of the volunteers were told to prioritize tips from political allies and associates of President Donald Trump, tracked on a spreadsheet called “VIP Update,” according to documents and emails obtained by The New York Times. Among them were leads from Republican members of Congress, Trump youth activist Charlie Kirk and a former “Apprentice” contestant who serves as the campaign chair of Women for Trump.
Trump allies also pressed FEMA officials directly: A Pennsylvania dentist, once featured at a Trump rally, dropped the president’s name as he pushed the agency to procure test kits from his associates.
Few of the leads, VIP or otherwise, panned out, according to a whistleblower memo written by one volunteer and sent to the House Oversight Committee. While Vice President Mike Pence dropped by the volunteers’ windowless command center in Washington to cheer them on, they were confused and overwhelmed by their task, the whistleblower said in interviews.
“The nature and scale of the response seemed grossly inadequate,” said the volunteer, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity and, like the others, signed a nondisclosure agreement. “It was bureaucratic cycles of chaos.”
The fumbling search for new supplies — heralded by Trump and Kushner as a way to pipe private-sector hustle and accountability into the hidebound federal bureaucracy — became a case study of Trump’s style of governing, in which personal relationships and loyalty are often prized over governmental expertise, and private interests are granted extraordinary access and deference.
Federal officials who had spent years devising emergency plans were layered over by Kushner allies, working with and within the White House coronavirus task force, who believed their private-sector experience could solve the country’s looming supply shortage. The young volunteers — drawn from venture capital and private equity firms — were expected to apply their deal-making experience to quickly weed out good leads from the mountain of bad ones, administration officials said in an interview. FEMA and other agencies, despite years of emergency preparation, were not equipped for the unprecedented task of a pandemic that impacted all 50 states, they said.
But the officials acknowledged it was difficult to identify specific contracts the volunteers had successfully sourced.
At least one tip the volunteers forwarded turned into an expensive debacle. In late March, according to emails obtained by The Times, two of the volunteers passed along procurement forms submitted by Yaron Oren-Pines, a Silicon Valley engineer who said he could provide more than 1,000 ventilators.
Kushner’s volunteers passed the tip to federal officials who then sent it to senior officials in New York, who assumed Oren-Pines had been vetted and awarded him an eye-popping $69 million contract. Not a single ventilator was delivered, and New York is now seeking to recover the money.
“There’s an old saying in emergency management — disaster is the wrong time to exchange business cards,” said Tim Manning, a former deputy administrator at FEMA. “And it’s absolutely the wrong time to make up new procedures.”
Records and emails obtained by The Times — along with interviews with current and former FEMA officials, former task force volunteers and others briefed on the agency’s work — provide the most detailed picture yet of how the Kushner-installed personnel complicated the government response amid a deadly crisis.
The whistleblower memo, which has been provided to lawmakers on a House oversight committee, was disclosed Tuesday by The Washington Post.
In April, as the virus spread, the shortages continued and the volunteers struggled, Hendricks waited, eager to move forward. Some of his messages to the volunteers went unreturned, he said, as he read news reports of the government making other, questionable, deals.
“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,” said Hendricks, who has since sold supplies to hospitals in Michigan and elsewhere.
A scramble for supplies
The coronavirus crisis presented a unique test for FEMA, former and current officials said: a 50-state emergency in which acquiring emergency supplies, many of them from overseas, became the overriding concern, rather than efficiently distributing goods readily available in the United States. In interviews, current FEMA officials and former colleagues who have spoken with them in recent weeks conveyed mixed feelings about the Kushner team’s involvement.
Some praised Kushner for ensuring that other White House officials did not meddle further in the response effort, and for quickly enlisting the Pentagon to link FEMA with the military’s suppliers. At meetings, some said, Kushner was well prepared with data and determined to act quickly. His deputies, including a Kushner friend and Trump appointee named Adam Boehler, were responsive to questions and concerns.
In a statement, Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, the head of the supply-chain task force, said the volunteers had served an important function.
“The first thing we knew we needed to do was find more product around the globe in order to buy time to increase domestic production,” the admiral said. “This group made lots of calls, followed up on many leads. They helped wade through the hundreds of false claims and turned over a few true sources to government action officers. Their efforts saved many government man-hours.”
But other officials described Kushner’s efforts as the solution to a problem of the president’s own making. Had Trump acted earlier than mid-March to assign FEMA to lead the federal government’s coronavirus response, the agency’s normal procedures might have been able to cope with the swelling demand. By the time Trump’s decision came, the Strategic National Stockpile was already running low on critical supplies. FEMA had no choice but to pursue every available lead, officials said, no matter how far-fetched.
And while the volunteers who began arriving around March 20 put eyes on the influx of tips at the agency, the officials did not understand why the White House did not recruit more manpower from the military or other agencies with logistics expertise, as FEMA typically does in a crisis. Two current and a former FEMA official briefed on the agency’s operations said the White House effort led to missed opportunities to procure personal protective gear from legitimate sources.
Some associates of Trump sought special treatment from FEMA. In one case, Jeanine Pirro, the Trump stalwart and Fox host, repeatedly contacted task force members and FEMA officials until 100,000 masks were sent to a hospital she favored. Pirro did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Dr. Albert Hazzouri, a Pennsylvania dentist and visitor of Mar-a-Lago, the president’s private Florida club, repeatedly pressed FEMA officials to buy from his associates, after being referred by Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, a fellow dentist.
He said he could help facilitate a procurement of 100,000 test kits from Mexico. Hazzouri, who has used his relationship with Trump to gain access to federal agencies in the past, repeatedly called the team of volunteers and FEMA officials, according to those involved in the agency’s operations, even invoking his friendship with the president when he was directed to a portal for submitting bids.
When reached for comment, a man who identified himself as the dentist’s brother said Hazzouri was not available and denied that the dentist had made use of his friendship with the president, received any special treatment or had a financial interest in the potential deal, saying he merely had made a few introductions. None of his tips resulted in FEMA supply deals.
The help arrives
The agency’s career staff is filled with military veterans and disaster specialists whose careers trace the history of recent American catastrophes: Katrina, Sandy, Deepwater Horizon, Irene. The volunteers, most in their 20s, had different names in their résumés: Stanford, Goldman Sachs, Google. One had graduated from college just the previous spring. They were recruited from Insight Partners, Clayton Dubilier & Rice and other investment firms and consulting companies in New York City.
According to the whistleblower, they were given little initial instruction. They used personal Gmail accounts, prompting suspicion from some prospective suppliers and brokers who questioned their bona fides. A few days after they began, a government lawyer belatedly showed up with nondisclosure forms from the Department of Homeland Security.
Bottles of hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes were placed around the room, and in a nod to social distancing, sheets of paper were laid on every other chair at the long conference tables, though many of the seats were eventually occupied by volunteers. For Pence’s pep talk in late March, the televisions were switched from CNN to Fox News.
For the next three weeks, the volunteers worked 12-hour days, struggling to keep up with leads funneled through FEMA’s website and trying to navigate the federal government’s byzantine procurement rules. But their work was plagued by frequent changes in process, efforts that turned out to be wasted, poor communication and mounting dread about their lack of progress, the whistleblower said in interviews and the blistering memo.
“These problems affect the entire chain of command, hamper our ability to respond and could result in many Americans losing their lives,” the whistleblower wrote.
Their temporary supervisor was Rachael Baitel, a 2014 Princeton graduate who had worked as a White House assistant to Trump before moving on to a position at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Baitel told volunteers to prioritize leads from the politically connected, according to the former volunteer and documents reviewed by The Times. The senior administration officials said that the White House task force was unaware that any FEMA leads were being prioritized on a VIP list. All leads judged by the volunteers to be worth pursuing, the officials said, would have been reviewed by career government officials, with a final contract decision made by FEMA procurement experts.
When Oren-Pines followed up with New York officials about his ventilator offer, he copied Baitel. BuzzFeed News first reported on the failed contract.
Many other leads came to the volunteers from Kushner’s team. There was Boehler, a former venture capitalist and Kushner’s college roommate, who was serving elsewhere in the administration, as well as Avi Berkowitz, a Kushner aide, and Trump’s chief of staff, Julie Radford. Tips also came in from Republican members of congress, conservative media personalities and Polowczyk, the supply-chain task force leader.
When Tana Goertz, the former “Apprentice” contestant who now runs Women For Trump, wrote in with a lead for N95 masks, it circulated among top Trump appointees at three federal agencies — including Trump’s top public health preparedness official, Robert Kadlec. Goertz did not reply to messages seeking comment.
In contrast, Hendricks’ messages sometimes went unanswered and were passed from person to person, even though he provided the codes and filled out the forms the government required, and sent a picture of the masks to Baitel to prove that they were real.
Weeks after the volunteers left in early April, and his tip had been passed to a Defense Department employee, Hendricks finally saw a sign of progress: notification of a possible site visit in China. “After five weeks of somewhat frustrating efforts, I’m finally hopeful,” he said.
Other potential suppliers contacted FEMA officials after the volunteers departed, asking about lack of follow-up. FEMA officials, who were not provided with complete records on the calls made by the volunteers, were forced to restart vetting some bids.
The volunteers also worked on other aspects of Kushner’s White House effort, notably Project Airbridge, in which American taxpayers paid to ship crates of gowns, masks and gloves procured in China by large American suppliers, such as Cardinal Health, McKesson and Owens & Minor.
Supplies of protective gear have improved in recent weeks, administration officials said, pointing to an agreement the White House struck with 3M in early April to procure more than 160 million respirators over three months. But many medical workers across the country say that shortages remain a serious problem.
“There are health providers quitting their jobs because they are worried about getting sick,” said Dr. Valerie Griffeth, an emergency room doctor in Oregon and a founder of Get Us PPE, a volunteer effort to match available medical supplies with hospitals and emergency workers.
She and other front-line medical workers continue to press Trump to make use of the Defense Production Act, and she criticized the administration’s reliance on the private sector to address the shortages.
“To bring in inexperienced volunteers is laughable when there are professional logistics experts in government who could have helped with procurement and distribution and get us the supplies we need,” she said.