On May 1, as White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, an illustration of an airplane flying to the moon appeared on the monitors beside her.
“One hundred flights for Project Airbridge have been completed to date,” McEnany said, delivering “nearly 1 billion pieces” of personal protective equipment to the front lines. The flights had traveled 720,000 miles, the display read, equal to “more than 3 trips to the moon!”
Since the debut of Project Airbridge in March, the Trump administration has promoted the initiative as part of a historic mobilization “moving heaven and earth” to source and deliver vast amounts of medical supplies from overseas to pandemic hot spots in the United States.
Widely credited to President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, the plan harked back to storied U.S. wartime efforts such as the Berlin Airlift. It called for the federal government to partner with a handful of medical supply companies, which could purchase emergency masks, gowns and gloves in Asia. The government would pay to fly the supplies to the United States — bypassing weeks of shipping delays — as long as the companies sold half of the goods in parts of the country hit hardest by the pandemic.
Almost six weeks after its launch, Project Airbridge has completed its 122nd flight, having cost taxpayers at least $91 million. But its impact on the pandemic is unclear and shrouded in secrecy: The White House, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the companies involved have declined to disclose where supplies have been delivered.
Administration officials, meanwhile, have pointed to the project as a signature initiative of their pandemic response. Broad and sweeping statistics about supplies procured through the project have been an almost daily fixture of White House press briefings.
“Through Project Airbridge, we have succeeded in bringing planeloads of vital supplies into the United States from overseas,” Trump said at a briefing on April 7. “These are massive planes, by the way. The big planes — they are very big, very powerful — and they are loaded to the gills with supplies.”
But the White House has on several occasions overstated the amount of supplies the project has delivered, according to a Washington Post review that compared shipment totals provided by FEMA to statements made by White House officials through news briefings and on social media. FEMA records, for example, show that Project Airbridge on average has delivered about 2.2 million surgical masks a day over the program’s span. Yet Vice President Pence claimed in a news briefing in April that the program delivered 22 million masks daily.
Project Airbridge PPE deliveries compared with overall FEMA, HHS and private-sector efforts
Overall, Project Airbridge flights have distributed just 768,000 N95 masks — far fewer than the 85 million N95 masks procured through conventional federal relief efforts, according to the latest FEMA records.
The N95 masks, which offer greater virus protection than surgical masks because they can filter airborne particles and tiny droplets, have made up less than 0.1 percent of Project Airbridge items shipped, records show. Disposable gloves account for about 90 percent of the nearly 1 billion items that McEnany said had been flown in through the initiative.