WASHINGTON — Peter T. Gaynor, the federal government’s top emergency manager, was about to go on television last week to announce that he would use wartime production powers to ensure the manufacture of about 60,000 desperately needed coronavirus test kits.
With minutes until the camera went live, though, he still had to let the White House know. The person he hurriedly called: Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who endorsed an announcement that surprised many officials. Among those unaware that Mr. Kushner had agreed to the use of the special powers? President Trump.
At one of the most perilous moments in modern American history, Mr. Kushner is trying in a disjointed White House to marshal the forces of government for the war his father-in-law says he is waging. A real estate developer with none of the medical expertise of a public health official nor the mobilization experience of a general, Mr. Kushner has nonetheless become a key player in the response to the pandemic.
Because of his unique status, he has made himself the point of contact for many agency officials who know that he can force action and issue decisions without going to the president. But while Mr. Kushner and his allies say that he has brought more order to the process, the government’s response remains fragmented and behind the curve.
Some officials said Mr. Kushner had mainly added another layer of confusion to that response, while taking credit for changes already in progress and failing to deliver on promised improvements. He promoted a nationwide screening website and a widespread network of drive-through testing sites. Neither materialized. He claimed to have helped narrow the rift between his father-in-law and General Motors in a presidential blowup over ventilator production, one administration official said, but the White House is still struggling to procure enough ventilators and other medical equipment.
Perhaps most critically, neither Mr. Kushner nor anyone else can control a president who offers the public radically different messages depending on the day or even the hour, complicating the White House’s effort to get ahead of the crisis. One moment Mr. Trump is talking about reopening the country by Easter, the next he is warning of more than 100,000 deaths. In the afternoon, he threatens to quarantine tens of millions of people in the northeast, then in the evening he backs down.
In an interview, Mr. Kushner would not discuss the president’s actions but said he views himself as an enabler of government agencies to overcome obstacles. “From the White House, you can move a lot faster,” he said. “I’ve put members of my team into a lot of components. What we’ve been able to do is get people very quick answers.”
But to some in the agencies, his team’s arrival has only exacerbated an already dysfunctional situation. In recent days, administration officials said, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which traditionally coordinates the government’s responses to disasters, has received surprise directives from the White House — including to dispatch deliveries of medical equipment to states that had not even submitted formal requests based on which governor got Mr. Trump on the telephone.
After the governors of Illinois and New Jersey called Mr. Trump last month, Mr. Kushner’s team told FEMA to immediately deliver medical equipment to both states even though the career officials were concerned that would redirect valuable medical necessities away from where they were most needed, such as the coronavirus hot spot of Washington state. Agency officials had to call the states’ emergency managers to ask them to submit formal requests for supplies the White House had already promised.
“There is some kind of communications failure between FEMA and the White House,” said Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “FEMA was brought into the response to provide logistics support and the White House should let them do their work. There is no reason for Jared or any other inexperienced person to be getting in the way of that.”
Administration officials anticipate that Mr. Kushner’s role is likely to be a focus of the new select committee House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Thursday to investigate the administration’s response to the coronavirus.
Since jumping into the crisis in mid-March, Mr. Kushner has focused on coordinating a scattershot government effort — first to improve testing, where progress has been made, and then to obtain more medical equipment, which remains a major problem for hospitals. His team organized an airlift of 22 scheduled flights of gloves, masks, gowns and other medical supplies from China, the first touching down in New York on Sunday.
Mr. Kushner has embedded dozens of political appointees and recruits from the private sector in critical spots like FEMA. His “impact team,” as he calls it, has been nicknamed the “Slim Suit Crowd” for its sartorial preferences by khaki-wearing FEMA veterans.
Mr. Kushner’s allies said he has made progress in improving coordination and that it is hardly surprising that agency bureaucrats bristle at outsiders suddenly arriving to push them to speed up or bypass their usual processes.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, a Democrat who has both sought to work with Mr. Trump and at times sharply criticized his administration, praised Mr. Kushner last week. “He’s been extraordinarily helpful on all of these situations,” Mr. Cuomo said at a news briefing.
Mr. Kushner has long been one of the most powerful players in Mr. Trump’s West Wing, taking on a broad portfolio with mixed results. He is credited with helping to push through bipartisan criminal justice legislation that shortened sentences for some drug offenders and expanded job training for prisoners, but his much touted bid to broker Middle East peace has gone nowhere.
His influence has only grown during a power vacuum inside the West Wing. Mr. Trump abruptly fired Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, on March 6, even as the coronavirus pandemic was growing. The president named Representative Mark Meadows, Republican of North Carolina, to replace him, but Mr. Meadows waited more than three weeks to resign his seat and only formally assumed his new post on Tuesday.
Into that void stepped Mr. Kushner, who enlisted friends with glossy entrepreneurial backgrounds to help, including Adam S. Boehler, head of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, a foreign aid agency. Mr. Boehler, the founder of an in-home medical provider start-up and the former director of the innovation center at the federal government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, joined Brad Smith, who currently holds that job, and Nat Turner, a software entrepreneur.
Mr. Turner once ran a snake-breeding business out of his childhood bedroom before growing up to help found and later sell Flatiron Health, a technology company that works with cancer patients and oncologists. In his efforts to help with the administration’s response to the pandemic, he has involved Flatiron employees, who have issued orders to health agencies, stirring resentment, according to a senior administration official involved in meetings.
The culture clash between public and private sectors has been jarring. The senior official described the Kushner team as a “frat party” that descended from a U.F.O. and invaded the federal government. To government officials, the outsiders demonstrated a lax attitude to policy discussions, at one point using the website freeconferencecall.com to arrange high-level meetings. Others have used personal email accounts in sensitive policy exchanges.
That has prompted criticism from watchdog groups who say such practices are not secure and violate federal laws intended to preserve such communications.
“There is no excuse for hiding information from the public that affects their lives in an extraordinary time,” said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group often critical of the Trump administration.
The emergency situation has also led to questions about the merging of private and public interests. Some producers of the malaria drug chloroquine who know Mr. Kushner have invoked his name with administration officials to press for a quicker means of production on the unproven coronavirus treatment touted by Mr. Trump.
After the president at Mr. Kushner’s urging made a splashy announcement last month that Google was helping build a national screening website to direct Americans to testing locations, it turned out there was no such national site anywhere close to being launched by Google.
But Oscar Health, a health insurance company founded in part by Mr. Kushner’s younger brother, Joshua, did work on such a website at the government’s request before dropping the project, according to the Atlantic. Jared Kushner partially owned or controlled Oscar before joining the White House and Joshua Kushner remains a major investor in the firm, as does Google’s parent company.
Mr. Trump, according to two people familiar with the events, unleashed his fury at Mr. Kushner over the debacle related to the Google website the weekend after his announcement, a level of anger that the president’s son-in-law has rarely endured and that seemed to knock him off balance briefly. (Mr. Kushner’s allies insist Mr. Trump calmed down and moved on once Google issued a statement about the website).
Weeks later, the website that was eventually developed by another firm owned by Google’s parent company still operates in only four California counties. Likewise, Mr. Kushner’s effort to open an array of drive-through testing sites has resulted in just five locations, at a Rite Aid in Pennsylvania, two Walmarts and a Walgreens in the Chicago area and a CVS in Massachusetts, each of which were set up to run only 250 tests a day, according to two government officials.
While senior FEMA officials, including Mr. Gaynor, the agency administrator, complain that Mr. Kushner’s team is disrupting their operations, they describe Mr. Kushner himself as helpful. He arrived at planning meetings in recent weeks prepared with data sets that FEMA officials did not think to ask for, including models for expanding the emergency response. Some expressed relief that Mr. Kushner’s arrival meant someone at the White House was finally in charge of operational activity.
Last week, according to two officials involved in the situation, Mr. Kushner was told that FEMA was finding medical equipment to buy overseas but could not get quick payment authority. Mr. Kushner, they said, canceled his meetings and went to FEMA headquarters, where he asked to have the official involved brought to him to explain the holdup.
Mr. Kushner then enlisted Russell T. Vought, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and told Pat A. Cipollone, the White House counsel, not to return to the White House until he figured it out, setting a noon deadline. By 11:30 a.m., according to the officials, Mr. Kushner was told it was resolved.
Mr. Kushner early on agreed with his father-in-law that the news media was hyping the coronavirus to attack the president, according to several officials. Although people close to him deny that he failed to take the virus seriously at first, Mr. Kushner shares the president’s view that governors are driving their residents into a panic by airing worst-case projections of medical needs.
In conversations with advisers to the president, many of whom were stunned by the remark, Mr. Kushner has stressed what he sees as his own abilities, saying that he’s figured out how to make the government effective.
Despite the views of staff members who see Mr. Kushner as a novice at government, Mr. Kushner still views himself as a person who can fix things. “I learned very early on that when you try to work around an existing government structure, it rarely works,” Mr. Kushner said in the interview. “You have to take the machinery that exists and empower it rather than recreate it.”
Peter Baker, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Noah Weiland reported from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from New York. Kitty Bennett contributed research.