An explosive documentary details how Jared Kushner's coronavirus task force consisted mainly of 20-something volunteers buying PPE with personal email accounts

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An explosive documentary details how Jared Kushner's coronavirus task force consisted mainly of 20-something volunteers buying PPE with personal email accounts
White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and counselor Kellyanne Conway listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting about the coronavirus response in the Oval Office on April 30, 2020.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, describes the task force in a new documentary, called "Totally Under Control," which is now streaming on Hulu.
  • According to Kennedy, most members of the task force were young, inexperienced volunteers "cold emailing" Chinese factories from their personal email accounts.
  • After quitting the task force in April, Kennedy wrote an anonymous whistleblower complaint to Congress accusing the group of corruption and ineptitude.

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 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, says in a new documentary about the Trump team's coronavirus response.

The film, called "Totally Under Control," was made in secret over five months and began streaming Tuesday on Hulu. Directed by Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, and Suzanne Hillinger, the documentary comes from Jigsaw Productions, which finished putting it together on October 1, the day before President Trump announced he'd tested positive for COVID-19.

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An explosive documentary details how Jared Kushner's coronavirus task force consisted mainly of 20-something volunteers buying PPE with personal email accounts
Official poster for 'Totally Under Control,' a new documentary about the US government's response to the coronavirus pandemic.Courtesy of Neon

In the film, Kennedy says he volunteered because it felt like the right thing to do, despite his "apprehension" about working for the Trump administration. He traveled to Washington, DC, and showed up at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Once there, he said, volunteers were led to a windowless underground conference room. TVs covered the walls, all blaring Fox News.

Kennedy recalls representatives from FEMA and the military giving a "pep talk," telling volunteers they needed to procure "the stuff" for the US government — referring to personal protective equipment (PPE).

An explosive documentary details how Jared Kushner's coronavirus task force consisted mainly of 20-something volunteers buying PPE with personal email accounts
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence attend a meeting at the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters, Thursday, March 19, 2020, in Washington.AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool

Then the officials left, leaving Kennedy and the other volunteers to slowly realize what was happening.

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"We thought we'd be auxiliary support for an existing procurement team," Kennedy, who is the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, says in the film. "Instead, we were the team."

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 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 forced to make single-use masks last for several days. A surgeon in Fresno, California, told The New York Times that it was like being "at war with no ammo."

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An explosive documentary details how Jared Kushner's coronavirus task force consisted mainly of 20-something volunteers buying PPE with personal email accounts
1,000 pop-up signs were arranged on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building showing the faces of nurses and frontline healthcare workers pleading for adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) on April 17, 2020 in Washington, DC.Paul Morigi/Getty Images for MoveOn

There were many 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 inventories of N95 masks to China.

A 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 and the other volunteers — whom he said had no experience in supply chains or healthcare — worked on their personal laptops with very little direction, according to his account.

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"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 says in the documentary.

The group was told to prioritize leads from "VIPs," which mostly consisted of well-connected and wealthy Trump supporters, as BuzzFeed News and The New York Times previously reported. The task force kept track of these 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.

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As the team worked, the TVs played Fox News 24/7, Kennedy recalls, with the channel's coronavirus-death counter ticking steadily upward.

Kennedy says nobody told the other volunteers how to buy PPE

Buying PPE without any experience or advice was difficult, according to Kennedy, since he and the other volunteers had no idea how procurement worked.

An explosive documentary details how Jared Kushner's coronavirus task force consisted mainly of 20-something volunteers buying PPE with personal email accounts
US President Donald Trump tours a Honeywell International Inc. factory producing N95 masks during his first trip since widespread COVID-19 related lockdowns went into effect May 5, 2020, in Phoenix, Arizona.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,'" Kennedy says 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."

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A week into their work, Kennedy reveals, several government employees told the volunteers they had to sign nondisclosure agreements. It was an ultimatum: Sign the NDAs, or leave the room immediately.

"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 says in the film.

Kennedy quit the task force in April, then broke his NDA, sending an anonymous complaint to Congress to say the task force was "falling short."

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"In my time on the task force, our team did not directly purchase a single mask," he says 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 respond to Business Insider's request for comment about the film or the task force.

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This story was originally published on October 7. It has been updated with new information.

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