Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, criticized governors Thursday, saying they don't have a handle on their own supplies of masks and ventilators needed to combat the coronavirus outbreak.
In a rare appearance in the White House briefing room, Kushner urged governors and some senators to be more resourceful in their own states instead of looking first to the federal government for help.
"What a lot of the voters are seeing now is that when you elect somebody to be a mayor or governor or president, you're trying to think about who will be a competent manager during the time of crisis," he said. "This is a time of crisis, and you're seeing certain people are better managers than others."
Kushner, a real estate executive with no public health expertise, generally works behind scenes at the White House. So, critics have been curious about his role in the administration's efforts to confront the coronavirus pandemic.
He has emerged with a central role working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to oversee the distribution of vital medical supplies to hospital and health care providers.
On Thursday, he explained that Trump and Vice President Pence came to him looking for new ideas and "outside of the box" thinking.
But his lack of experience has drawn scrutiny, especially when he referred to the national stockpile of medical supplies as "our stockpile."
"The notion of the federal stockpile was it's supposed to be our stockpile," he said. "It's not supposed to be states' stockpiles that they then use."
The backlash was quick and harsh.
"I would dismiss what Mr. Kushner said," Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, told NPR's Here & Now. "That is absolutely not the way it is supposed to work."
Kelly said that the national stockpile was supposed to be a backup for states — and that the Trump administration should have done more to fill it.
A day after Kushner made his remarks, language on a government website about the national stockpile was changed to more closely reflect his description. But a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services said the department had been using the new language for weeks. The assistant secretary for preparedness and response "first began working to update the website text a week ago to more clearly explain to state and local agencies and members of the public the role of the" Strategic National Stockpile, the spokesperson said.
When asked Friday about his son-in-law's remarks, Trump said Kushner was "talking about our country."
"We need it for the government and the federal government," he said, complaining that state governments should have had their own stockpiles. "The federal government needs it, too, not just the states," he said.
Part of Kushner's strength is his proximity to the president.
He has been his father-in-law's point man on issues as diverse as the Middle East peace process, immigration and now the response to the coronavirus.
The real estate developer and scion of the Kushner family, which operates the Kushner Companies, is well-connected — and he's using those connections, working with FEMA and the U.S. military, to get things where they need to be with the response to the outbreak.
As he recounted Thursday, the president had called him earlier that morning about reports he was hearing about critical shortages in the New York public hospital system.
"I called Dr. [Mitchell] Katz, who runs the system, asked him which supply was the most supply he was nervous about," Kushner recalled. "He told me it was the N95 masks. I asked what his daily burn was, and I basically got that number, called up Adm. Polowczyk, made sure we had the inventory."
Polowczyk is the director of fleet ordnance and supply at the U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Va.
However, some experts question Kushner's lack of experience overseeing the response to emergencies of this scale.
"You know last time I checked, he's never run disasters," said Craig Fugate, who ran FEMA during the Obama administration.
Fugate said the federal government can't base decisions on request. The coronavirus is moving so fast states can't keep up.
"My experience in disasters is the burn rate is always greater than what anybody anticipates," he said. "And if we had waited for states to identify their needs, we were always behind and not there fast enough."
Then there are concerns raised by ethics groups who contend that Kushner's role in the response is akin to overseeing a shadow task force with no oversight.
"If there was ever a time we need records and transparency, this is it," Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said in a statement. "As the seriousness of this pandemic continues to grow, the public needs to understand who in the White House is making policy decisions, who from private industry is influencing those decisions, and how decisions to address this pandemic are being made."
But Andy Slavitt, the Obama-era administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, calls the current crisis an all-hands-on-deck effort. He appreciates Kushner or anyone else in government sharing their expertise.
But he does say roles need to be clear and execution much more coordinated.
"The issue should be, we don't need five generals," he said. "We need somebody in charge," he said. "We need a top-down structure where we get decisions made quickly."
And he says the military is best poised to lead that effort.