Earlier this week, reporters in Washington and New York all received the same, strange email. It came from a sender named Robert Hyde, headed by the oblique subject line: “Masks.”
Hyde is perhaps best known for his brief star-turn in the impeachment investigation—and arguably its most bizarre twist—in which House Democrats released messages showing Hyde apparently involved in tracking the physical whereabouts of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. (Hyde would later say the texts were a joke.) A landscaper from Connecticut, Hyde came to DC in 2017 to start a lobbying firm; exactly how he managed to fall in with Rudy Giuliani, Lev Parnas, and Igor Fruman has never been entirely clear. Foregrounded in this mystery, Hyde is also running for Congress in Connecticut.
In his email to reporters, Hyde claimed to have urgent information: “I can get ten million masks by next week,” he wrote. He followed up again in a text message, before taking his plea to Twitter—where his Tweet included a fuzzy photo of a storage room stacked with N95 masks.
Hyde’s Tweet was met with scorn: “Trump fans tend to turn out to be lying grifters,” one user replied. “This idiot is just another lowlife trying to scam people.” A few news sites splashed cold water on Hyde’s claim. One was TPM, in which editor Josh Marshall wrote of the “Trump mega fan”: “[I]t appears that Hyde does not have ten or twenty million masks and likely has no masks.”
But at least one entity is interested in buying masks through Hyde: The United States government, which contacted Hyde shortly after his Tweet to inquire about buying 20 million masks.
On Friday, an official representing the Department of Health and Human Services reached out to Hyde through his lobbying website, according to emails shared with Washingtonian and confirmed by an HHS spokesperson. “We would like to discuss the 20M KN-95 masks you posted on Twitter. Is there a number we can reach you at?” wrote the official, Jonathan Hayes, a senior advisor in the Office of Preparedness and Response. That name will likely stick out to followers of the White House’s immigration policy: Hayes spent the past year as interim director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, before being replaced three weeks ago in mid-March and transferred to the Preparedness office.
In a followup email, Hayes encouraged Hyde to submit a price quote through a portal the federal government has set up for procuring PPE. He also asked Hyde to “provide us details on what you are offering.”
But there was also this question: What was he offering? Did Hyde really have access to 20 million masks?
Obviously, such a claim is extraordinary. Then again, was it any more extraordinary than a New England landscaper allegedly ascending to the inner sanctum of the President’s activities in Ukraine? Meanwhile, a spate of new reporting increasingly paints a Wild West portrait of the various states, hospitals, and private buyers now wading into the global chaos of the PPE market—thanks, in large measure, to guidance from the White House instructing them to do exactly that. Amid this buy-and-sell feeding frenzy, was it really so hard to believe that Hyde was involved?
With this in mind, I thought I’d call Hyde.
As March has turned into April, the nation has become fixated—horrified, really—with the inscrutable mechanics of the medical supply chain. Last month, Forbes reported that masks were leaving the country by the hundreds of millions. FEMA is supposedly coordinating the direction of medical equipment, but states continue to say they face shortages. Then Americans learned about the enigmatic existence of a “strategic national stockpile”—before Jared Kushner quickly dashed any hopes of the stockpile alleviating the crisis.
The federal government did not begin purchasing PPE until mid-March, according to an AP report. Even members of Congress have been reduced to desperate measures to secure masks for their district, calling bicycle shops and sex-toy stores—anything for a plausible lead.
Somewhere amidst this pandemonium, there was Robert Hyde. He was delighted to talk about his efforts.
“Three days ago, I didn’t even know about face masks. Now here I am, facilitating for hospitals,” Hyde told me triumphantly. He claimed he was in contact with a half-dozen suppliers, whom he was connecting to large hospital systems, including Yale-New Haven, UMass Memorial, and at least one other hospital system in New York. Since his Tweet, Hyde’s email inbox had exploded with requests from desperate people seeking protective equipment. (A screenshot he sent me showed a slice of the country’s widespread anxiety. “Good morning, we are interested in learning more about the masks”… “A family member shared your post to me on Facebook”… A funeral-home director: “When can I get the masks?” A senior home-care liaison: “You donating? Selling? I have many home nurses…”)
“I’m getting contact from first responders, cops, fire departments—lots of fire departments,” he told me. “I didn’t know a fucking thing about face masks. Here I am, just trying to help, and it’s exploded.”
In Hyde’s telling, the mass market for PPE was so chaotic that he figured he’d throw himself into the middle of it. “There’s tons of shit out there—get it!” he said. “You could do the same shit. You could literally call, and do what I did: ‘Anyone have face masks?’ You’d be shocked at how many people come out to you.”
This was a lot of talk about ‘outreach’ and ‘conversations.’ He mentioned that a deal for $25 million had “fallen through” in Florida, because a “kid” had tried to scam him. Sensing skepticism on my part, Hyde doubled down: He claimed to be instrumental in procuring an order of millions of masks that had already been shipped to New York state. To prove it, he produced a copy of a Letter of Intent, signed by Sean Carrol, the Chief Procurement Officer at New York’s Office of General Services, and addressed to a principal at a private disaster-relief company in Miami, Florida. Hyde included a second document: a Purchase Order to the company dated March 29, which detailed an order of 15 million masks at a price of $5.50 per mask, for a total invoice of $82.5 million, to be sent to a FEMA supply hub in Montgomery, New York.
A spokesperson for New York’s Office of General Services confirmed the documents were valid. But she couldn’t say whether Hyde was involved in the deal or not. “There are a lot of showboaters out there,” she warned. I showed the documents to a site manager at the FEMA warehouse in New York; he hadn’t received them yet, he said. “I can tell you I have not yet received that quantity of masks,” he wrote in an email.
Hyde described his involvement this way: He connected the New York office to a consultant, a “good friend” of his. Through the consultant, he then connected the New York officials to GEM in Florida.
If anything, I was even more skeptical. Repeatedly, he emphasized that he had only jumped into the PPE game three days ago. I prodded Hyde for more details, suggesting delicately that readers might not believe the story. “Don’t believe me?” he exclaimed. “I’m fucking Rob Hyde!”
Hyde then offered an unorthodox way to further make his case: He made a series of phone calls, with me silently listening in on the conversations. Spanning the next hour or so, Hyde went back and forth with a series of suppliers. In one phone call, a gruff-sounding man described an impending deal with “UMass.”
“What did UMass want?” asked Hyde.
“I think they’re going to be around 75,000,” the man responded. “It will be seven to ten days depending on the supply route.”
“Make sure they’re NIOSH-FDA,” Hyde said at one point. “I don’t want people saying, ‘Oh, Rob Hyde sold us bullshit masks.'”
As Hyde alluded to his other sources, the man interrupted: “What are these, all your old military connections?”
“Yeah, sort of,” Hyde replied.
A little later, Hyde patched me into another conversation. This time, the connection sounded far away; a man with a heavy, unplaceable accent spoke through static on the other end.
“The merchandise from China, I can put on a plane tonight,” the man said. “The two N95’s that I sent you—the two models.”
Hyde pressed him about another seven-to-ten day wait, and there was crosstalk. “Do I have it this second? No, I don’t have it this second,” the man answered. “You know what’s going on in China right now? It’s crazy.” He assured Hyde, “I sold half a million, three-hundred thousand—last week I sold a million piece of N95 in the US. I did, of course I did.”
Hyde momentarily broached the subject of ventilators with the man, who was familiar. “I’m in contact with the Israeli Defense Force,” the man said. “I sold them a lot of stuff, a lot of ventilators as well.”
Who were these men? Brokers? Suppliers? Hyde was opaque. He simply called them his “sources,” his “guys.”
“I guess you could call them my sourcing agents,” he said. “Sources being like, ‘Dude, I can get you this! I got this! I got a warehouse of these.'”
Clearly, there was evidence that Hyde was busy making overtures to nameless sellers and mysterious brokers. But there still wasn’t much definitive evidence that Hyde had successfully facilitated any large deals. The New York officials wouldn’t confirm his involvement. Hyde wouldn’t give the names of sensitive sources. And all the while, he held firm that he had only gotten involved in delicate hospital negotiations in the past two or three days.
He also insisted that he wasn’t taking any commission on the deals—his work was entirely pro bono, he told me. In fact, he was losing money, now that he was involving his campaign lawyer in analyzing some of the deals, according to some emails Hyde shared. Presumably, facilitating a deal would be a boon to his candidacy. He said that a deal with Yale-New Haven Health System, which he hoped was forthcoming, would have his name on the Purchasing Order, clearing up any possible confusion.
But I was still left pressing for evidence. Hyde sent over two more communiqués. One was a snippet of text conversation with a contract specialist from a major New York hospital chain. “Please send me the address for us to inspect,” the official asked Hyde. The snippet ended vaguely, with the official giving their email address.
Then Hyde sent a screenshot of an email, from a contract specialist at Yale-New Haven. “Checking with my clinical team now on the MASKS,” the email reads. “What is the price for all 150,000 that are coming in?”
But there was a problem: Without explanation, Hyde had blacked-out the name of the contract specialist who sent the email. He had also blacked-out the recipient. After some cajoling, Hyde sent me the image again, this time without the redactions. In the recipient field was the name of a man who wasn’t Hyde. “Yeah, that’s my guy,” Hyde shot back irritably, by way of explanation.
After hours of back-and-forth, Hyde couldn’t understand why these snippets of email didn’t prove his role in securing millions of masks. When I again pressed for some paper trail from the hospital systems—some kind of evidence to show Hyde’s involvement in negotiations, purchases, or transactions—Hyde lost his temper.
“What are you trying to validate? You’re on the phone with these fuckers!” Hyde shouted. “You don’t see that, in the shit you’ve been getting and seeing? The fucking email chains bro? It’s pretty straightforward.”
There were a lot of moving parts, I offered meekly. “There’s not a lot of moving parts. You guys are always trying to network and navigate and finger-fuck the shit out of the simplest things.” I found this to be a creative way of describing the process of fact-checking. “There’s not—saving lives,” he faltered. “You need fucking masks in Connecticut and New York? People are dying and getting sick. Here are some fucking masks. Done.”
Still seething, Hyde said I could call the official at Yale-New Haven mentioned in the email, which seemed to describe a deal for 15,000 masks. A few minutes later, I was speaking with Ron Sherman, a contract specialist and supply chain analyst at Yale Hospital.
After all the cajoling with Hyde, what Sherman told me came as a genuine surprise: Yes, he reported, he had indeed been negotiating a proposal with Hyde. “His efforts are there,” Sherman told me. “The proposal hasn’t been approved yet. I think the pricing’s a bit high. We have it up against a couple other suppliers—we have over 500 proposals.”
Sherman sounded exhausted. He described being bombarded by hundreds of emails a day, as he navigated the purchasing of equipment for the hospital system.
Sherman had first learned about Hyde’s offer to supply ten million masks on social media. “There was a post on Facebook that somebody shared,” he said. “So I reached out to whoever shared it, and they connected me with him.”
Sherman seemed aware of how odd this must have sounded. Yale New Haven hospital is the fourth largest hospital in the United States, the hub of a system that annually treats 2.4 million patients, employs 26,000 people, and has $6 billion in assets. It seemed inconceivable that a medical supply officer would be scrounging social media for tips to secure PPE.
But in a cool voice, Sherman offered a bean-counter’s appraisal of the hospital’s grave imperative in the middle of an economic hurricane. “Especially now? I think anything is possible,” he said. A stray lead on Facebook, from a person with no history of dealing in medical supplies, couldn’t be overlooked. “Any opportunity, we’re going to look into that. It doesn’t matter where it’s from.”
Sherman, who stressed these were his personal views which didn’t necessarily represent the hospital system’s, didn’t use the word “desperate,” but I suspected as much from the tone of his voice. “Obviously, you want it to come from a credible source,” he continued, sighing. “But anything is worth looking into. Even if it’s just a quick ten minutes, or a quick phone call.”
Though he was negotiating with him directly, Sherman had no idea who Hyde was. “Oh yeah, definitely not,” he said, when I described his political background. “I didn’t even know he was a Congressional candidate.” He sounded amused to learn of Hyde’s role in the impeachment scandal. “I don’t really follow much of the political stuff,” he offered, a bit sheepishly.
Not that it would matter, Sherman added. “As long as we vet it out, look at the specs and the pictures,” he said, he’d take the PPE—any way he could.