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Trump's son-in-law takes surprise top role in coronavirus fight

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Washington (AFP)

He's got no medical experience, was never elected or saw military service, but as Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner has crucial access -- and now he's White House pointman for the coronavirus crisis.

A youthful looking 39, Kushner is no stranger in Washington. Although he'd never served at any level of government before, his marriage to Trump's daughter Ivanka put him at the heart of power after the 2016 election.

Now Kushner's surprise appearance at Trump's daily coronavirus briefing Thursday has confirmed his rise to the top tier on one of the greatest crises to hit the country in its history.

Trump's vice president, Mike Pence, is meant to be coordinating the complex government response to an illness overwhelming the health system and economy.

For days there had been whispers that Kushner, a real estate scion who casts himself as a dynamic thinker, was running a shadow team. On the briefing room podium, Kushner emerged from that shadow.

While making sure to say he was there to assist Pence, Kushner spoke with the self-confidence -- critics often call it arrogance -- of someone enjoying unique influence.

Asked to describe his still vaguely defined mission, Kushner suggested he would reinvigorate a team struggling with the dire challenge of battling the pandemic across the vast, diverse country.

Kushner said Trump had asked him "to make sure that we think outside the box, make sure we're finding all the best thinkers in the country, making sure we're getting all the best ideas."

- Drama in the house -

The Trump White House is regularly marked by personnel dramas that wouldn't look out of place on the president's old reality TV show "The Apprentice."

Senior figures come and go at a fast pace, sometimes fired by tweet, and in several cases departing on the bitterest of terms.

A month ago, Trump fired his third chief of staff. The replacement, Mark Meadows, took weeks to assume his office, meaning the president was without a key aide just as the coronavirus was ballooning into disaster.

The slick, apparently highly focused Kushner saw his moment.

This isn't the first time Kushner takes up a role that many might shy from.

Earlier this year, he brought out Trump's plan for nothing less than resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Again, he went into that diplomatic minefield with no relevant experience.

The plan was panned by almost everyone except for the Israeli government and its Washington backers. But the episode demonstrated Kushner's extraordinary position.

Now, with state governors and Trump wrangling over who has responsibility for securing and delivering medical supplies to coronavirus-hit areas of the country, Kushner is back, promising to get results where others failed.

He said he would "break down every barrier needed to make sure the teams can succeed."

- 'Scared' -

The White House feels it is being unfairly blamed for delays in the supply chain from equipment stockpiles and manufacturers to hospitals and ordinary citizens.

In the world's richest country, lifesaving ventilators are in desperately tight supply. It is difficult for most people even to get a simple face mask.

Trump argues the shortfall of medical supplies is the fault of state governors, not the federal government, which he describes as a mere back-up, rather than leader.

In his briefing appearance, Kushner was right on message, saying that individual states have no automatic right to such assistance.

"The notion of the federal stockpile was it's supposed to be our stockpile," Kushner said, drawing instant scorn from his opponents on Twitter. "It's not supposed to be state stockpiles that they then use."

In scathing comments, Kushner went on to say that the crisis was revealing which politicians were "better managers." He described some governors as "scared" and confused.

Supporters of Kushner say he is unusually bright, even a "hidden genius," as Trump's former UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, said in 2018.

On the frontline of the pandemic, the controversial son-in-law will have his chance to prove that right and his detractors wrong.

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