The same day that the nation’s top infectious-disease expert warned that reopening the economy too quickly could bring serious consequences, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner acknowledged that there is inherent “risk” in President Trump pushing Americans to get back to work.
Speaking to TIME’s senior White House correspondent Brian Bennett as part of the TIME100 Talks series on Tuesday, Kushner said “there’s risk in anything, but the President carries the burden of the 30 million Americans who have lost their jobs due to this historic effort to save lives.”
Asked about Dr. Anthony Fauci’s warning to lawmakers Tuesday about reopening too soon, Kushner said Fauci is “incredibly knowledgeable,” but that his advice must be taken alongside other factors.
“You have a lot of policymakers like the President or the governors who were elected by the people in their states and in their country to take the input of the experts and professionals, and then make decisions weighing a lot of different factors,” Kushner said.
Kushner spoke to TIME in a wide-ranging interview, answering questions about the delay in ramping up U.S. testing capacity, whether he prioritized contracts from allies in ordering medical supplies for states, the CARES Act and Trump’s re-election prospects in the fall.
As of May 12, there have been nearly 1.4 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States and more than 81,000 deaths. More than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the pandemic hit the U.S.
Kushner’s comments came one day after the White House held a briefing to tout its testing capacity, during which Trump said the U.S. had “prevailed” on testing. And at the end of April, Kushner himself had called the U.S. coronavirus response a “success story.”
“I don’t want those comments to be taken in a way other than to contextualize how much our hearts break for the people who have passed and their families,” Kushner said when asked about them Tuesday. “We know that it’s a terrible tragedy, and one life [lost], as the President said, is too many. But faced with the magnitude of what this pandemic was and what it could have been…the situation could have been a lot worse. So we really worked very, very hard to create a better outcome than could have been otherwise.”
The U.S. has completed more than 9.3 million COVID-19 tests as of May 11, according to Kushner, with each state on track to be able to perform almost double the number of tests per capita than South Korea, whose response to the virus has been lauded globally.
That expanded ability will be a crucial component in the country’s reopening, Kushner said. “We see testing as one of the keys to unlock the opening, but it’s not the only key,” Trump’s son-in-law told TIME. Heading into the fall, Kushner said he hopes to see four things that will help society reopen safely: a “ton” of tests; widespread adoption of mitigation measures like hand-washing, social distancing and mask-wearing; increased hospital capacity; and wide availability of personal protective equipment (PPE).
While much of the country remains locked down, Congress has passed a series of stimulus measures and sent checks to millions of Americans to help stabilize the economy as it suffers the worst unemployment levels since the Great Depression. Critics have noted that certain provisions in the CARES Act, like the joint tax break in Section 2304, will disproportionately benefit wealthy Americans.
When asked if he personally stands to benefit from the bill, Kushner said he doesn’t know how it will affect him, because he doesn’t manage his personal finances and has recused himself from his businesses. “I have no knowledge of any of this that was designed to help me personally, or the President,” Kushner said. (Kushner also denied that the volunteer force he organized to work on procuring medical supplies kept a “V.I.P.” spreadsheet to prioritize tips from political allies, as the New York Times had reported.)
Americans’ economic distress could hurt Trump’s re-election prospects. Kushner himself had previously told TIME that Trump’s pitch to voters this fall was going to focus on a booming economy. Now, Trump is trailing former Vice President Joe Biden in both national and swing-state polls. Kushner said Trump is “looking forward” to debating Biden and dismissed the polls as “inaccurate.” Kushner said he believes the choice in the election will come down to: “Who do you trust to build the economy back?”
When asked if there was a chance the presidential election could be postponed past November 3 due to the pandemic, Kushner said that isn’t his decision. “I’m not sure I can commit one way or the other, but right now that’s the plan,” he said.
“Hopefully by the time we get to September, October, November, we’ve done enough work with testing and with all the different things we’re trying to do to prevent a future outbreak of the magnitude that would make us shut down again,” Kushner continued. “I really believe that once America opens up, it’ll be very hard for America to ever lock down again.”
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Write to Tessa Berenson at tessa.Rogers@time.com