For the past several weeks, Kushner has led a “shadow task force” on the coronavirus, separate from Vice President Mike Pence’s official committee, according to The Washington Post. Kushner’s team, composed of federal officials allied with Kushner and outside corporate executives, has met in the headquarters of the Department of Health and Human Services. A senior official at that agency called Oscar to ask for its help on March 13, the day of Trump’s press conference, the Oscar spokesperson said.
Kushner’s group has focused on expanding and publicizing coronavirus testing, especially at drive-through locations. Oscar’s website would have asked users if they were experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, and surveyed them about other risk factors, including their age and preexisting conditions. It also would have listed a limited number of testing locations nationwide, including some of the drive-through sites that Trump promised. It was designed to look like a government-developed product, provided freely by the Department of Health and Human Services to the American public. Oscar posted the source code for the site to Github, where The Atlantic reviewed it.
The site resembled a version of a tool Oscar had already built for its customers in response to the crisis, but it was “adjusted to meet the specifications and requirements set by the federal government,” Jackie Kahn, the Oscar spokesperson, said in an emailed statement. That Oscar had already been working on a coronavirus-testing website when HHS called to ask for help was a coincidence that had nothing to do with Kushner, Kahn suggested. She declined to say whether Oscar had discussed that site with Joshua Kushner or any board members or investors before Trump’s March 13 press conference.
Oscar donated its work freely and never expected to be paid for the project, Kahn said. The company is “not, nor has ever been,” a contractor or subcontractor for the government, she said, which would make it harder for the government to pay Oscar for its work. The work was “all at the direction of HHS,” she said. “The website never saw the light of day,” she added in an interview today.
That may not matter from an ethics perspective. The ad hoc nature of Kushner’s task force has already collided with federal laws. Oscar’s involvement deepens Kushner’s ethics and conflict-of-interest problems.
“It’s not typical. It’s usually not allowed,” Jessica Tillipman, an assistant dean at the George Washington University School of Law and an expert on anti-corruption law, told me.
Oscar’s relationship with the Trump administration could breach federal law in two ways, Tillipman and other experts told me. First, companies are generally not supposed to work for the federal government for free, though some exceptions can be made in a national emergency. “The concern, when you have some free services, is that it makes the government beholden to the company,” Tillipman said.