The New York Times ran a column this morning with the sensational headline “Jared Kushner Is Going To Get Us All Killed.” The sudden appearance of Kushner as a main player in the task force on the Covid-19 was highlighted with his appearance at yesterday’s press conference. He was preceded by a formal thank you to Ivanka Trump for her efforts. While many have criticized statements made by Kushner in the press conference, I thought his points were well taken like noting that some mayors and governors have failed in this crisis while others have excelled. Nevertheless, I have been a critic of the inclusion of Kushner and Ivanka Trump on the White House staff since it was announced because it is a form of raw nepotism. (See here, here, and here and here) I have also been a long critic of such nepotism by members of Congress. The sudden thrusting of the two to the forefront of this crisis is remarkably harmful to the Administration and its efforts. I have been highly impressed, and relieved, by the superb team assembled by the task force. I believe that they have been doing an outstanding job.
For that reason, I have no idea why it was necessary to suddenly put the President’s family into the mix and rekindle the long controversy over nepotism. With some polls showing the majority of the public opposed to the White House response, this was a critical press conference where impressive data was to be disclosed on the federal distribution of essential materials. Rather than ride that possible news, Trump threw Kushner into the mix and his role promptly washed out the coverage on the success of the task force.
The column by Michele Goldberg runs through the long list of criticism over Kushner and his history in business. His critics insist that he has had a series of colossal failures before joining the White House and continued that record with such disasters as his Middle East peace plan. However, there is little reason to believe that he will endanger anyone on the task force. His comments seemed to be well-informed and focused on the issues. Some criticism that he showed a lack of knowledge, like not understanding how a federal stockpile works, are unfair and exaggerated. That does not mean that I believe this was a wise move. It is not. It was wrong for John F. Kennedy to appoint his brother at Attorney General and wrong for Bill Clinton to make Hillary Clinton the head of the health care task force. Those wrongs do not make this right. Just as I opposed the inclusion of any family member on the White House staff (a position I have held for decades in writing against nepotism in Washington), I think his inclusion on a pandemic task force magnifies those problems (and political costs) a hundred fold.
The weird aspect to all of this is the timing. President Trump has assembled an amazing team of top experts in medicine, emergency relief, and transportation. Critics have had to acknowledge the strength of that team. I still do not believe that this task force has been given sufficient credit for its work in this crisis. Yet, the fruits of that work are now appearing as resources ramp up across the country. Then the White House decided to inject this controversy into the mix — inviting cries of objections over family connections trumping expertise on a crisis where thousands may die. Why?
The column captures the tsunami of objections this morning well:
“The president was reportedly furious over the website debacle, but Kushner’s authority hasn’t been curbed. Politico reported that Kushner, “alongside a kitchen cabinet of outside experts including his former roommate and a suite of McKinsey consultants, has taken charge of the most important challenges facing the federal government,” including the production and distribution of medical supplies and the expansion of testing. Kushner has embedded his own people in the Federal Emergency Management Agency; a senior official described them to The Times as “a ‘frat party’ that descended from a U.F.O. and invaded the federal government.'”
Those concerns are not confined to anti-Trump critics. There is a legitimate reason to be discomforted by the appearance of the President’s son-in-law in such a key position. With projections of up to 240,000 deaths coming from the White House, the public wants to see people at the helm who are the top of their fields — relevant fields to this pandemic.
If this makes no management sense, it makes even less political sense. When the Administration is winning over some critics in aspects of its pandemic response, it decided to create a new and easy target for criticism. Critics can now spread doubt over the basis for the President’s decisions. Whatever position Kushner holds (and that remains undefined), he described making high level calls and directives on resources that could make the difference of life and death for thousands.
While I have opposed his appointment to the staff on nepotism grounds, I have never joined critics in attacking Kushner’s intelligence or background. I have never met him and many accounts of his past often seem highly biased, if not rabid. He clearly has had some success in life. However, at the time of one of our greatest challenges as a nation, the President owes it to the public to show that he is bringing in people who are the very best of their fields based entirely on their records, not their family associations.
This is why in a pandemic it is essential to engage in familial distancing in the management of the crisis.