Don’t doubt Trump when it comes to the VA
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Many Americans were surprised that, in his first week in office, President Trump has done exactly what he said he would do, from negotiating a wall on the Mexican border to implementing a controversial immigration ban. However, with the nomination hearing for his Veterans Affairs secretary, Obama-appointee David Shulkin, set for this Wednesday, it remains to be seen whether Trump will deliver the same explicit execution of his campaign’s veterans affairs reform platform

First, it is important to clarify what Trump’s veterans affairs reform platform actually says and what it does not say.


His 10-point plan for VA reform contains two main themes: (1) better access to care of the veteran’s choice, including access to private care, and (2) accountability of agency employees.


Although some have advanced the idea that Trump supports full-scale privatization of the VA due to his close association with adviser Pete Hegseth, former executive director of the conservative advocacy group Concerned Veterans of America, this is not entirely accurate.

Trump has stated that he intends to overhaul the VA, which includes greater access to private care, but he has not wholly endorsed privatization. In fact, when Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries Shontel Brown wins Ohio Democratic primary in show of establishment strength READ: Cuomo's defense against sexual harassment investigation MORE accused him of supporting the privatization of the VA on the campaign trail, her assertion was labeled “a misleading Democratic talking point.”

Nonetheless, veterans who voted for Trump interpreted these two themes as being in stark contrast to the Obama administration’s strategy of expanding the department’s budget and deference to unions, which prevented the firing of employees who manipulated wait-time data. As a result, many of these veterans were surprised when Trump selected Shulkin to head the troubled agency.

As a voting bloc, veterans voted for Trump by a 2-to-1 margin, and in a recent survey, 82 percent of veterans said that they did not think veterans were better off under the Obama administration than they were previously. Thus, although many are hopeful that the plight of veterans will improve during the Trump Administration, there has been some concern in the veterans community that the one campaign promise Trump will not deliver on is one of true VA reform.

In listening to Shulkn’s testimony later this week, it is important to remember that Trump’s campaign promises on access to care and accountability did not go as far as many on the right had hoped or continue to report. Trump himself clarified that he prefers a public-private option over whole-scale privatization, “because some vets love the VA.”

Further, although Trump gained notoriety and ultimately won the presidency due to his harsh campaign rhetoric in other policy areas, his selection of Shulkin as secretary seems to indicate an affirmation of his somewhat restrained positions on VA reform, as Shulkin has previously testified that privatizing the VA would be “a terrible mistake.”

Similarly, at a recent meeting of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee to discuss priorities and procedures for the 115th Congress, all of the committee members, both Republicans and Democrats, emphasized that they wanted to work with the department and the new administration, but neither endorsed privatization. Specifically, Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisSeven-figure ad campaign urges GOP to support infrastructure bill Graham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate Biden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet MORE (R-N.C.) stated that he wanted to “dispel some of the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that may exist in this community when we hear that we have significant support for the total privatization of the VA ... that’s total nonsense.”

In addition, Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterGraham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate This week: Senate starts infrastructure sprint Senators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session MORE of Montana, the committee’s new ranking member, stated that, with regard to accountability, although Trump has repeatedly stated that it is needed within the VA, he intends to also hold the Trump administration accountable to provide quality care and service to the nation’s veterans.

Beyond issues relating to the VA alone, accountability remains a hot topic for the Trump administration. Trump has had his own cantankerous relationship with the concept, including whether he will actually be able to “drain the swamp” and whether many of his other campaign promises pass constitutional muster.  

Despite the initial surprise of Trump’s selection of Shulkin for VA secretary, there will most likely be few surprises during Shulkin’s confirmation hearing. Shulkin was easily confirmed with bipartisan support as VA undersecretary for Health in 2015, and members of both the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees appear eager to work with him.

Upon closer examination of Trump’s veterans reform platform, perhaps the only real surprise is not his ability to execute his campaign promises but how reasonable and indicative of compromise those campaign promises actually are.


Rory E. Riley-Topping has dedicated her career to ensuring accountability within the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) to care for our nation’s veterans. She is principal at veterans advocate Riley-Topping Consulting and has served as in a legal capacity for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans Affairs and for the National Veterans Legal Services Program.

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