A group of young, inexperienced volunteers was tasked with securing much-needed medical supplies for hospitals fighting coronavirus, hampering the government’s response to a growing pandemic, according to reports by The New York Times and The Washington Post.
The group of roughly a dozen volunteers, mostly in their 20s, were part of a broader coronavirus supply-chain task force assembled by the President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the two news outlets reported.
They were assigned to winnow out the best leads for protective gear out of a thousand and send those to a FEMA procurement team for final approval, the Post and Times reported.
“The bottom line is that this program sourced tens of millions of masks and essential PPE in record time and Americans who needed ventilators received ventilators,” Kushner said in a statement provided to the Post. “These volunteers are true patriots.”
CNN has reached out to the White House about the volunteer team.
But the volunteers, who were recruited from consulting and investment firms and began their task in late March, had little to no experience in health care and dealing with procurement procedures or medical equipment, the Times and Post reported.
It ultimately led to missed opportunities to obtain personal protective equipment (PPE) from recognized sources, two current and a former Federal Emergency Management Agency officials told the Times, at a critical time when states were scrambling for medical resources and the number of hospitalizations from Covid-19 was rising.
President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he didn’t “know anything about the details” of how the group operated, but praised the volunteers and called the effort a “well-oiled machine.” The volunteers, he said, were able to get needed supplies “at a very early point.”
“These were young, brilliant people that were brought in because they have expertise in this,” the President said from the Oval Office. “Some people would say nerds. This is what they do.”
Trump repeated that he “wasn’t involved in the details,” but told reporters that the equipment “started flowing.”
The volunteer group was confused and overwhelmed by its assignment and given little initial instruction, according to a whistleblower complaint filed by a former volunteer last month and provided to the House Oversight Committee, the Times reported. The group was given nondisclosure forms from the Department of Homeland Security days after they started, according to the Times.
According to the complaint, few of the leads they flagged ended up working out, the Times reported.
“I believe the volunteers are competent, hard working and intelligent, but we represent a smaller procurement team than at most midsized companies despite the magnitude of the crisis,” the complaint read, according to the Post. “I believe America deserves a larger, better-funded response. The team generally works 12+ hour days, seven days per week, but frankly has little to show for it.”
CNN has reached out to the House Oversight Committee.
The volunteer group was also told to prioritize leads from “VIPs,” including political allies, conservative journalists and associates of Trump, outlets reported.
Fox News Channel host Jeanine Pirro repeatedly lobbied the administration for a specific New York hospital to receive a large bulk of masks and “Fox & Friends” host Brian Kilmeade passed along a lead about PPE, the Post reported, citing two people familiar with the outreach. A Fox News spokeswoman told the Post that Kilmeade and Pirro said they were unaware that they were prioritized.
According to emails obtained by the Times, two of the volunteers in March had passed along procurement documents filed by a Silicon Valley engineer, Yaron Oren-Pines, who claimed he could provide more than 1,000 ventilators.
The volunteers forwarded the lead to federal officials, who then sent it to New York officials, who assumed Oren-Pines had been vetted, the Times reported. New York state awarded the engineer a $69 million contract, but didn’t receive a single ventilator, which was first reported by BuzzFeed News.
Trump, pressed by reporters Wednesday, cast doubt on the notion that the group prioritized some companies over others.
“Do they have companies? Do they not have companies? I can tell you I don’t believe these kids would have knowledge of any of these companies,” Trump said.
According to the whistleblower complaint, the volunteers had difficulty establishing relationships with manufacturers and brokers, partly because they had personal email accounts, which raised doubt among potential sources, the Times and Post reported.
The whistleblower also said that the group’s work was crippled by “frequent changes in process, efforts that turned out to be wasted, poor communication and mounting dread about their lack of progress,” the Times reported.
“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, the Times noted.
Two senior administration officials disputed parts of the whistleblower complaint to the Post.
They told the newspaper that many of the volunteers had relevant experience and that they didn’t have trouble vetting leads or getting replies from suppliers and brokers.
The officials told the Post they hadn’t heard of leads being given “VIP” treatment.
They said that it’s hard to know whether the volunteers’ leads on PPE resulted in procurement since the group didn’t have final say or purchasing authority, the Post reported.
Senior administration officials also told the Times that all leads would have to be reviewed by career government officials and any contract decision would be finalized by the FEMA procurement team.
After the volunteers left in early April, other potential suppliers contacted FEMA officials, asking about their unanswered offers, the Times reported.
FEMA officials, who hadn’t been provided with complete records of the volunteers’ calls, were forced to restart the vetting process for some leads, according to the Times.
Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, the head of the supply-chain task force, told the Times that 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,” Polowczyk said in a statement to the newspaper. “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.”