President Donald Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner discouraged efforts to ramp up testing for weeks after the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. over of concerns that a rising number of cases might spook Wall Street, according to a new report.
Based on interviews with dozens of current and former Trump advisers and global health officials and experts, the Financial Times report revealed that Kushner held more influence over the president than top health experts as the country grappled with the health crisis.
"Jared [Kushner] had been arguing that testing too many people, or ordering too many ventilators, would spook the markets and so we just shouldn't do it," a Trump confidant who frequently speaks with the president told the outlet. "That advice worked far more powerfully on him than what the scientists were saying. He thinks they always exaggerate."
This week's report corroborated previous allegations that Kushner was behind the hesitation to act quickly, claims which the president's son-in-law has denied.
"Jared kept saying the stock market would go down, and Trump wouldn't get re-elected," a Republican close to the situation told Vanity Fair last month.
Kushner was also behind Trump's botched announcement of a Google testing website that did not (and still does not) exist and upended the government's supply chain, sources told the outlet. Several House committees are now investigating Kushner's role in the disjointed distribution of supplies, as well as government seizures of shipments procured by individual states.
Kushner, who called Trump's response to the crisis a "great success story" as the death toll in the U.S. quickly exceeded that of any other nation, was empowered by Trump to "sideline the best-funded disaster response bureaucracy in the world," The Times reported. Vanity Fair similarly cited a White House official who called Kushner the "de facto president of the United States."
The Financial Times report detailed Trump's repeated boasts about the response even as he "ignored increasingly urgent intelligence warnings" and dismissed "anyone who claims to know more than him."
"Trump's handling of the pandemic at home and abroad has exposed more painfully than anything since he took office the meaning of 'America First,'" William Burns, a former top diplomat under former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, told the outlet. "America is first in the world in deaths, first in the world in infections and we stand out as an emblem of global incompetence."
Public health experts agreed with Burns that "the damage to America's influence and reputation will be very hard to undo."
"Trump could have prevented mass deaths," Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Medicine, said. "And he didn't."
As Trump's response came under heavy criticism, the president touted unproven miracle cures and insisted that the virus would simply disappear. One administration official told the outlet that advising Trump was like "bringing fruits to the volcano."
"You're trying to appease a great force that's impervious to reason," another former senior official said. "People turn into wusses around Trump. If you stand up to him, you'll never get back in. What you see in public is what you get in private. He is exactly the same."
More recently, Trump has turned to going after China over its role in the pandemic. Former strategist Steve Bannon predicted that the president would use the issue as the centerpiece of his campaign to hit out at criticism of his response.
"Trump's campaign will be about China, China, China," he told the Financial Times. "And hopefully the fact that he rebooted the economy."
But George Conway, the husband of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, predicted that Trump would be increasingly boxed in by a crisis he likely made worse.
"Trump is caught in a box which keeps getting smaller," he told the outlet. "In my view, he is a sociopath and a malignant narcissist. When a person suffering from these disorders feels the world closing in on them, their tendencies get worse. They lash out and fantasize and lose any ability to think rationally."