Donald Trump’s flair for connecting with veterans won him an overwhelming share of their votes, but the durability of the alliance is already being tested as Trump’s search for a Veterans Affairs secretary veers in a direction that has alarmed some of America’s most influential retired soldiers.
Under pressure from conservative activists, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and organizations funded by the Koch Brothers, Trump is contemplating choosing an agency chief who would upend the entire veterans healthcare system. That would come over the protest of the country’s major veterans groups.
An appointment like that could prove an early test of whether the voters who backed Trump in November will continue to stick with him when his agenda smacks into interest groups that have been crusading on their behalf for decades.
And the selection process has set up the Veterans Affairs department to be a possible test case of the political impact of infusing the free-market approach championed by some conservative groups into a major government bureaucracy that serves millions of Trump’s most fervent supporters.
Sarah Palin’s name has been raised. Former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown has openly sought the job. Some in the transition team have touted Toby Cosgrove, the CEO of the Cleveland Clinic and a cardiac surgeon who served in Vietnam. Obama considered him for the job several years ago.
Most alarming to some of the country’s main veterans groups is Peter Hegseth, the former executive director of Concerned Veterans for America, one of a network of nonprofit groups bankrolled by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. The 36-year-old Hegseth, a Fox News contributor, has met with Trump more than once.
The dispute within Trump’s circle about which way to go helps account for the fact that the Veterans department is among the last Cabinet positions without a designee.
The department, which provides health care to 9 million veterans at nearly 1,300 facilities, has long been a political flashpoint. It is a bureaucracy struggling to overcome high-profile problems, where overcrowding and mismanagement have resulted in long wait times and headline-grabbing horror stories about suffering patients.
The troubles reached a crisis in 2014, leading President Obama to clean house and appoint Robert McDonald, the former CEO of Procter and Gamble, as the new secretary.
Large veterans groups, including the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, have applauded the progress the department has made since then.
In a recent letter to Trump, the veterans groups praised the department’s reduction in its backlog of claims, improved access to health care, and McDonald’s openness to working closely with them to right the mammoth agency. The groups, which represent a combined 5.5 million veterans, suggested they wanted to continue the current policies, and for a time, reports circulated that Trump might keep McDonald, a Republican, in the job.
But Trump has since signaled more radical plans.
During the campaign, Trump indicated support for the blueprint proposed by the Concerned Veterans group, which would offer all veterans the option of acquiring health care at the doctor of their choosing through a Medicare-style system, instead of routing them automatically through VA facilities.
The larger veterans groups warn that approach could cripple the current system through which veterans receive care and leave many with complex medical problems inadequate options for treatment.
Concerned Veterans says it does not favor privatization of veterans healthcare. Its approach, however, would result in a significant shifting of services to the private sector. Other veterans organizations warn that could leave VA facilities underfunded and at risk for closure.
“I am heartened to see President-elect Trump is taking this seriously and that this will not just be a throwaway appointment,” said Dan Caldwell, director of policy for Concerned Veterans. “We think McDonald’s tenure has been a failure.”
Concerned Veterans operates in a very different orbit than most of the major veterans organizations, which are heavily involved in guiding management decisions at the VA and helping their members gain access to services. It instead works with Republican lawmakers to take aim at the department, where problems have proven a politically potent weapon against Democrats in recent elections.
“If Pete Hegseth is named secretary, it would be the Kochs’ most spectacular win ever,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “There is such stiff opposition to him.”
“We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water,” Rieckhoff added. “It’s easy to just say ‘burn it all down and fire everyone.’ But the situation is much more complicated.”
Rieckhoff’s group and other major organizations have urgently requested to meet with Trump. They have not been able to get a commitment. The transition team instead sent a delegation to talk with them which included Omarosa Manigault, a star of Trump’s reality TV show “The Apprentice.”
“It is actually insulting,” said Rieckhoff. “The highest-ranking person the leading veterans services organizations have met with is Omarosa.”
Transition officials did not respond to requests for comment. On a call with reporters last week, Trump spokesman Jason Miller said the lengthy search indicates the gravity of the appointment.
“Whoever takes this position will be someone who understands how the bureaucracy works, someone who isn’t afraid to get in there and institute some very strong reforms, and to make sure that we’re delivering for veterans,” he said.
Gingrich is offering his own advice, lobbying Trump to pay no mind to the veterans groups. At an event last week sponsored by the Washington Post, Gingrich said that praise for McDonald by veterans service organizations reflected a preference for “access to Veterans Administration offices, rather than making sure that veterans are taken care of.”
Gingrich called for “straight-out war” with the agency’s bureaucracy.
As Trump considers his options, among those advising him on the Veterans Affairs transition team are Darin Selnick, a senior advisor at Concerned Veterans, and Amber Smith, who worked there until recently. The more mainstream veterans groups, meanwhile, are still waiting for their meeting.
“We think it is important for the President-elect to talk with us,” said Verna Jones, executive director of the American Legion.
“We are there. We are around. We collectively represent 5.5 million veterans. He should let us tell him what we see, and talk to him about what we can do.”
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