The private sector exercised significant influence throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, and the administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic was no exception.
During the early months of the pandemic, the Trump administration frequently relied on the private sector to address things like medical equipment scarcity and testing shortages. Business interests such as the aviation industry and meatpacking companies enjoyed privileged access to government officials on topics like federal aid and deregulation. White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner, who took a lead role in securing medical supplies and personal protective equipment, assembled a task force made up of inexperienced private-sector volunteers and close personal contacts that ran into significant problems.
Below are records obtained by American Oversight revealing communications between Trump administration officials and private-sector representatives from the first year of the pandemic, as well as a separate timeline of communications between officials at the Department of Agriculture and representatives of the meat industry.
March 3, 2020: Special Assistant to the President James Williams told FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn that the company Beyond Air was producing a portable nitric oxide system. Williams asked if the product could be “prioritized for consideration of approved testing and an open label trial with COVID-19 infected patients.” Hahn replied, “We will look at it.” In April 2020, the company received FDA approval for a clinical trial of the system.
March 9, 2020: Kenneth Kies, the managing director of the Federal Policy Group, forwarded an email from Michael McGarry, a senior vice president at the Cruise Lines International Association, to Deputy Treasury Secretary Justin Muzinich. McGarry had emailed Kies for help facilitating a meeting of the CEOs of Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, and MSC Cruises with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to discuss “adverse actions […] taken in response to COVID-19 which could irreparably harm the cruise industry.” Muzinich replied, “Got it, will raise.”
March 11, 2020: Former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen emailed HHS Secretary Alex Azar to pitch ANDE, a corporation specializing in rapid DNA technology with long-standing government ties, for help with Covid-19 testing. She wrote, “I know about them b/c I had hoped we could deploy rapid DNA technology on our southern border for a variety of reasons.”
March 14–15, 2020: Flatiron Health CEO Nat Turner, who had previously invested in Oscar Health, a company founded and run by Kushner’s brother, sent an “updated document on social distancing recommendations” to Jared Kushner, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation CEO Adam Boehler, and White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx. Birx forwarded it to CDC Director Robert Redfield and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who responded, “This looks fine.” The next morning, Turner sent an “Updated deck on social distancing recommendations” to Kushner, Redfield and Birx. That night, Boehler responded to an email thread about new guidance, writing that he, Kushner, Turner, and White House Staff Secretary Derek Lyons had spoken with “a few experts” to put together a revised draft. Birx and Fauci praised the new guidance.
March 16, 2020: Mnuchin forwarded Kushner an email from Alfredo Ortiz, the CEO of the Job Creators Network: “Here is an idea we had we wanted to share with you. The small business loan idea is being finalized and I will send to you later this morning.”
March 18, 2020: General Electric CEO Larry Culp emailed Mnuchin, thanking him for “taking the time to speak with me yesterday about the growing crisis in the aviation industry” and asking that aviation manufacturers receive “at least $60 billion” in federal assistance. Mnuchin replied, “Got the message.” The industry received a $25 billion bailout the next month.
March 26, 2020: Top Trump donor Henry Kravis, a co-founder of the private equity firm KKR whose name Trump had reportedly floated for Treasury secretary, emailed Chris Liddell, the deputy chief of staff for policy coordination at the White House. Kravis said that Envision, a health care company that KKR acquired in 2018, was struggling and might run out of money and requested that Liddell meet with Envision’s CEO. The request was forwarded to several top officials, including Azar and Birx. In June, Bloomberg News reported that almost 300 entities affiliated with Envision had received millions of dollars in HHS loans.
March 30, 2020: Tyler Ann McGuffee, an adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, forwarded to Hahn and Birx a message from Thomas Cahill, managing partner of investment firm Newpath Partners. Cahill wrote that his “team of citizen-scientists” had developed a proposal that would “provide a safe and effective therapy for COVID-19 within as little as 3 months.” Hahn replied, “Yes, I do think we (FDA) should engage.”
April 1, 2020: Gap CEO Sonia Syngal thanked Mnuchin for having joined a call with her and “other retail CEOs” a few days before, and said the CEOs endorsed a proposal from U.S. Customs and Border Protection that would allow companies to defer paying import duties. Later that month, the Treasury Department and CBP announced a new rule that granted importers the option to defer payment of duties, taxes, and fees for 90 days.
April 4, 2020: Rob Moran, the president of ATOR Labs, sent Kushner an email with the subject line “Ventilator manufacturer.” Moran wrote that his company had developed an emergency ventilator and was filing for emergency use authorization from the FDA. He continued, “We have been closely following the Trump administration, and know that you are a key figure in the Federal response to this pandemic. With a sliver of Federal resources, we would exponentially increase our production to match the exponential rise of the COVID-19 virus.” Kushner forwarded the email to other top officials.
April 6, 2020: Kushner organized and hosted a presidential meet-and-greet with volunteers from investment and private equity firms who assisted in the effort to procure personal protective equipment. According to the Wall Street Journal, the collaboration drew criticism over its management, including the volunteers’ use of personal email accounts while communicating with government vendors on behalf of FEMA.
April 14, 2020: In an email, Kushner praised DFC head Adam Boehler following a tweet from the right-wing One America News that thanked the Trump administration “for spearheading the public-private partnership” and procuring “4k ventilators in the federal reserve system.” Boehler, who attended college with Kushner and played a significant role in the pandemic response, responded, “Thanks for creating this opportunity for me J.” In November 2021, the Government Accountability Office released a report that revealed that the DFC had been given $100 million in CARES Act funds to finance the domestic production of medical supplies, but failed to process any of the 178 loan applications it received.
April 25, 2020: Ivanka Trump emailed Mnuchin about “an idea” regarding the Paycheck Protection Program and community development financial institutions, writing “I would love to discuss further and see how my team can work with yours and [redacted] to get this up and going ahead of the second round of PPP going live on [April 27].” Mnuchin connected her staff with Bimal Patel, the assistant secretary of the Treasury for financial institutions, who said he would connect with Ivanka Trump’s staff “offline.”
July 2020: The trucking company Yellow Corporation receives a $700 million loan, making up 95 percent of the total funds under a CARES Act program supporting defense contractors. Mnuchin, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow all discussed the loan over email. Yellow Corporation is backed by a private equity firm with ties to Kushner’s family company.
In the early months of the pandemic, as the coronavirus spread through crowded and already dangerous meatpacking plants, companies sought to prevent closures and cut back on safety regulations, even at the expense of workers’ safety. Industry representatives frequently found assistance from a sympathetic Trump administration, which pushed for laxer safety measures and in April 2020 unveiled an executive order labeling plants “critical infrastructure,” thus allowing them to stay open.
Below is a timeline of documents from 2020 obtained by American Oversight through Freedom of Information Act requests and litigation that provide insight into the industry’s influence on the U.S Department of Agriculture during the pandemic.
March 14–15, 2020: USDA and White House officials exchanged emails preparing for a March 15 phone call between Trump and grocery store executives. USDA officials prepared possible questions for discussion including supply chain issues, store labor shortages, and other pandemic-related challenges for retailers.
March 27, 2020: In an initial report from the USDA’s Food Supply Chain Task Force noted that the diversion of personal protective equipment to the health care sector would “interrupt the food supply chain,” and that such disruptions would be worsened by the need to devote more time cleaning.
April 13, 2020: Ashley Peterson, a senior vice president at the National Chicken Council, wrote to a number of officials in the USDA secretary’s office: “Thank you again for your time last week to discuss several pertinent industry issues. One of the issues that we discussed was regarding the current line speed limits and how flexibility in those limits would help us ensure we can maintain production during these uncertain times.” Lillie Brady, USDA’s director of external affairs, replied, “We will make sure the right folks are aware.” That same month, USDA granted waivers allowing 15 plants to operate at faster chicken-eviscerator line speeds, more waivers than the agency had ever before approved in a single month.
April 13, 2020: USDA Undersecretary Greg Ibach received an email from Nebraska reporter Steve White. White included links to industry-friendly articles he had written about Covid-19 mitigation steps taken at meatpacking plants. White asked Ibach for a television interview about “what … your [agency is] arguing in response to the COVID situation?” Ibach forwarded White’s email to other USDA officials and wrote, “Request from local TV station in Nebraska with broad coverage in state. Friendly media.”
April 21, 2020: The North American Meat Institute shared with USDA officials a draft executive order that contained the following sentence: “I hereby order that critical infrastructure food companies continue their operations to the fullest extent possible both during and after the COVID-19 crisis subsides so that they can continue to process, produce, and deliver food to the Nation.” On April 28, Trump signed an executive order that echoed this language and gave USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue the authority to keep the meatpacking plants open.
April 26, 2020: In an email to Ivanka Trump and other White House and USDA officials, José Andrés suggested ways the government could support small farms, small businesses, and the food service industry. “No one is better than restaurants at making sure money distributes across the system to reach small farmers, suppliers, and delivery companies!” he wrote.
May 5, 2020: Smithfield Vice President Michael Skahill asked USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety Mindy Brashears whether a Sioux Falls, S.D., plant that had been closed since mid-April because of a coronavirus outbreak — at the time among the nation’s largest single-source coronavirus hot spots — could reopen. Brashears wrote that it could reopen, and when Skahill asked whether that was “essentially an order” to reopen, Brashears responded, “We expect you to re-open as soon as possible.” In June, case counts at the plant remained high.
Oct. 9, 2020: Brashears circulated an email regarding a paper on “COVID-19 Effects on Livestock Production,” which appears to have gone against USDA’s public push to increase line speeds and was co-authored by a USDA official in the Agricultural Research Service. “Please distribute and let’s discuss,” she wrote. “This paper suggests line speed waivers and modernized inspection systems are bad for food safety. USDA authorship.” Over email, officials expressed concerns about the origins of the paper, and a public affairs specialist for Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS) said that the article’s authors had not reached out to FSIS.
October 2020: USDA officials received an email from Louis Anthony Cox, a scientist and adviser to the Environmental Protection Agency criticized for ties to corporate interests, about his newly published paper in Poultry Science that justified increased line speeds at meatpacking plants. The study, which Cox conducted under a research contract from USDA, concluded that increasing line speeds did not result in increased salmonella risk. In an Oct. 20 email, to other USDA officials, Brashears asked, “Can I talk about this at the stakeholders meeting on Thursday?” She followed up with “I really want to tell them.” Later, in an Oct. 26 comment to the publication Meatingplace, Brashears said, “Our own internal data showed that the increased line speeds did not impact salmonella negatively, but we wanted to make sure we had that data from an independent source and the assurance [that] we were standing on science and the data.”