Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's trusted senior adviser and son-in-law, pronounced the federal coronavirus response a "great success" last week.
Mission accomplished, he seemed to be saying. And there's a good reason for Trump and Kushner to see things that way.
Kushner is right to the extent that the White House coronavirus task force's goals were to consolidate Trump's power and limit his accountability, and to thereby try to position him for re-election in the midst of a public health and economic emergency that has claimed the lives of more than 70,000 people in the U.S. so far.
Now, as more people die, he'll try to pin shortcomings in the response to the crisis on 50 scapegoats — the nation's governors. He will still have full control over the scarce goods those governors need to protect their residents, restricting their ability to attack him or even point out publicly any failure of the federal government to supply them.
But those weren't the priorities of many of the federal health and emergency-response experts who worked on the task force or were familiar with its operations. Nor were they the first concern of many governors, mayors, lawmakers, hospital administrators, suppliers, distributors and front-line workers who believed that protecting the public from the pandemic should be Trump's focus.
Over the past several weeks, NBC News has reported on the operations of the task force and the way decisions made in Washington affected, and in many cases hamstrung, America's response to the pandemic and its economic fallout.
It was a lot to take in, for reporters and readers.
But with Trump encouraging states to open up, despite resistance from public health and emergency-management professionals in his own administration, there's a good opportunity to step back and look at just what the White House has done. And make no mistake, government work-flow charts and sources inside the administration are clear that ultimate decision-making authority rests in the White House.
Kushner believes the task force worked to streamline the federal response, while experts in disaster management and public health think the task force often hampered it. But from the perspective of mainlining authority to Trump and responsibility away from him, it was efficient.
One official familiar with the task force's supply chain unit said that Kushner, along with friends he recruited to work on the issue — dubbed "the children" inside the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters — "cost weeks" as they scrambled to recreate acquisition and distribution systems that already existed, often waiving federal rules along the way.
Adm. John Polowczyk, a defense logistics specialist, was tapped to shore up the supply chain with a group of officials from FEMA, HHS, the Defense Department and other agencies, as well as Kushner allies from inside and outside government. Polowczyk told his charges that he had been given a "blank check" by the White House to buy scarce supplies, from ventilators to millions of pieces of personal protective equipment.
Inside FEMA headquarters, bids were placed and contracts were written, often with so little vetting of the seller that contracting officials had to find ways to normalize the deals after they were made. One seller, who offered the federal government 100,000 body bags for $5.1 million, ended up losing the deal after it was awarded due to default, according to federal records. Time and again, rules requiring open bidding for federal contracts were set aside under emergency waiver authorities.
The no-bid style opened the door for favoritism in the acquisition process, and firms like Prestige Ameritech, a small mask-manufacturing company in Texas, received millions of dollars in work at the direction of the White House.
Kushner and Polowczyk put together "Project Airbridge," an operation designed to speed up delivery of goods from overseas while also bringing more of the supply under the White House's control. Under the terms, the federal government would assist participating medical-goods companies by paying private air carriers.
In exchange for the free flights, the companies agreed to give 20 percent of their stock directly to Uncle Sam and split the remaining 80 percent down the middle. The task force would then direct the distribution of half of the remaining order — 40 percent of the original total — to areas it deemed most necessary while the company got to provide the last 40 percent to its existing customers.
One of Project Airbridge's most-heralded deals involved the government paying Federal Express to fly Tyvek, a synthetic material produced in Virginia by DuPont, to Vietnam, where it was sewn into protective coveralls and sold to W.W. Grainger at a cost of $4 per suit. Grainger then took ownership of the coveralls and sold them to the federal government at a price roughly twice that amount. Finally, the feds paid FedEx to fly back the first shipment of what could end up being an order of 4.5 million suits and Trump announced the deal — without mention of Grainger as the middleman — in early April.
A senior White House official speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the work of the task force told NBC News that White House officials didn't want companies to take a loss. The flip side of that is they were already guaranteed profit from a trusted buyer.
Arrangements like those made through Project Airbridge turned out to be one of the sources of complaints that FEMA redirected goods that states, cities and hospitals were expecting to receive. FEMA itself didn't confiscate goods. But re-routing by the federal government was part of the Project Airbridge deal, which prevented participating companies from fulfilling orders made by other customers.
At the same time, FBI agents working under the auspices of White House anti-gouging efforts — the Justice Department has its own task for that — did take away goods. In one case, Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., the chairman of the House's tax writing committee, intervened with legislative affairs officials in the administration to stop the pursuit of protective equipment delivered to a Massachusetts health system. When goods are confiscated, DOJ will try to get the seller to provide them to FEMA or other agencies, either free or at a price that satisfies both sides.
It makes sense for the White House to want to pull all of the nation's resources together and allocate them to COVID-19 hot spots, but Trump sometimes used his authority over allocation in ways that reflected his political needs rather than needs of first responders and patients.
He was open about the benefits of being his ally, telling the public that he would distribute supplies in part based on the level of appreciation shown to him by governors and other political officials. He sent ventilators to two Republican senators, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Martha McSally of Arizona, who are facing tough re-election bids.
Trump would like to reduce his role in the virus response, as he has shown by demanding that states engage in his plan for "Reopening America Again." Officials inside the administration have warned that there could be a "catastrophic resurgence" of the disease because there's no vaccine, no verified effective pharmaceutical treatment and no telling when enough tests will be available. But the White House insists Americans will be safe if governors do their jobs.
For much of America, the coronavirus crisis is an ongoing period of fatality and fear, of isolation and obsessive hand-washing. For Trump, it's a bygone problem he washed his hands of.