White House senior advisor Jared Kushner and counselor Kellyanne Conway on April 30. AP Photo/Evan Vucci
For several weeks in March and April, Max Kennedy Jr., then 26, served on Jared Kushner’s White House COVID-19 Supply Chain Task Force.
Kennedy, who is Robert F. Kennedy’s grandson, quit the task force in April. Soon after, he wrote an anonymous whistleblower complaint to Congress accusing the task force of corruption and ineptitude.
According to Kennedy, most members of the task force were young, inexperienced volunteers “cold emailing” Chinese factories from their personal email accounts.
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Video: Why the Strategic National Stockpile wasn’t prepared for the pandemic
When Max Kennedy Jr. volunteered to help out on Jared Kushner’s White House COVID-19 Supply Chain Task Force, he thought he’d be helping out senior staff with rote tasks like data entry.
“My old boss called me and said he heard Kushner’s task force needed younger volunteers who had general skills and were willing to work seven days a week for no money,” Kennedy, now 27, said in the forthcoming documentary about the Trump team’s coronavirus response, “Totally Under Control.” The film, which was made in secret over the past five months, is slated for on-demand release on October 13.
Official poster for “Totally Under Control.” Courtesy of Neon
Despite his “apprehension” about working for the Trump administration, Kennedy volunteered because he felt like it was the right thing to do, he said.
So Kennedy traveled to Washington, DC, and showed up at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Once there, he said volunteers were led to Conference Room A, a windowless underground meeting space. TVs covered the walls, all blaring Fox News.
After they sat down, Kennedy said representatives from FEMA and the military came in and gave them a “pep talk.” The officials told volunteers they needed to procure “the stuff” for the US government — Kennedy said they were referring to personal protective equipment, or PPE.
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence at a meeting at FEMA headquarters on March 19. AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool
Then the officials left, leaving Kennedy and the other volunteers. Slowly, they realized what was happening.
“We thought we’d be auxiliary support for an existing procurement team,” Kennedy, who is the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, said in the film. “Instead, we were the team.”
Kennedy said he and a dozen inexperienced volunteers had become a core component of the US government’s efforts to procure PPE.
A severe shortage of PPE across the US
Kushner formed the COVID-19 Supply Chain Task Force in March to address what had become a pressing issue: the US’s severe shortage of PPE and other medical equipment. Already, hospitals in many regions were running out of masks and ventilators, and workers were making single-use masks last over several days. One surgeon in Fresno, California, told The New York Times it was like being “at war with no ammo.”
Pop-up signs on the lawn of the Capitol Building showing the faces of nurses and frontline healthcare workers pleading for adequate PPE on April 17. Paul Morigi/Getty Images for MoveOn
There were multiple reasons for these shortages, including a lack of preparations by previous administrations — many of the Strategic National Stockpile’s 12 million N95 masks were expired, for instance. But in February, the Trump administration created the “CS China COVID Procurement Service,” which existed partly to encourage American producers like 3M to sell their entire inventories of N95 masks to China.
One month later, when American hospitals desperately needed N95 masks, they were forced to import them and pay up to 10 times more than the price that American producers would have charged, according to the documentary.
Using personal email accounts to buy critical supplies
For the rest of March and well into April, Kennedy sat in Conference Room A with the other volunteers, whom he said had no experience in supply chains or medical issues. With very little direction, the team members opened up their personal laptops and got to work, Kennedy said.
“We started cold emailing people we knew who had business relationships in China, looking for factories online, and emailing them from our personal Gmail accounts,” Kennedy said in the film.
The group was also told to prioritize leads from “VIPs,” which mostly consisted of well-connected and wealthy Trump supporters, BuzzFeed News and The New York Times previously reported. The task force kept track of such leads in a spreadsheet called “VIP Updates.”
One “VIP,” the Silicon Valley engineer Yaron Oren-Pines, received a $69 million contract to provide 1,000 ventilators to New York state after he tweeted at the president, Business Insider previously reported. Oren-Pines never delivered, and the state has tried to get its money back.
As the team worked, the TVs kept playing Fox News 24/7, Kennedy said, adding that he remembered the channel’s coronavirus-death counter ticking steadily upward.
Kennedy said nobody told the other volunteers how to buy PPE
Buying PPE without any experience or advice turned out to be difficult, largely because Kennedy said he and the other volunteers had no idea how procurement worked, and nobody would tell them.
Trump tours a Honeywell International Inc. factory on May 5 in Phoenix. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images
“We would call factories and say, ‘We think the federal government can send you a check in 60 days,’ and they would say, ‘There’s someone with a briefcase of cash, and they’re offering to pay me right now,'” he said in the film. “And we would run around the FEMA building looking for someone who could tell us what payment terms the government was allowed to offer, and no one ever told us.”
A week into their work, Kennedy said several government employees walked into Conference Room A and told the volunteers they had to sign nondisclosure agreements. They offered an ultimatum: Sign the NDAs, or leave the room immediately, according to Kennedy.
“We all had built our own relationships with manufacturers, and it felt like if we walked away, it would negatively affect our ability to buy this critical, life-saving equipment. And so we all begrudgingly signed the NDA,” he said in the film.
Kennedy quit the task force in April. That month, he also broke his NDA, sending an anonymous complaint to Congress that said the task force was “falling short.”
“In my time on the task force, our team did not directly purchase a single mask,” he said in the film.
Kushner’s program was mostly shut down in May, even though state governments and healthcare facilities were still experiencing critical shortages of PPE and ventilators.
The White House didn’t immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment on the film or Kennedy’s characterization of the task force.
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