Trump leaves mixed legacy on veterans affairs

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Elections are seldom won based on a candidate’s position on veterans’ affairs, so, in 2016, when Donald Trump made reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) part of his central campaign strategy, many veterans, advocates and stakeholders were intrigued. 

For Trump, the strategy paid off. Veterans voted for him by about a two-to-one margin over his opponent, Hillary Clinton. 

Initially, the strategy of voting for Trump seemed to pay off for veterans, too. In 2017, Trump passed several major pieces of VA-related legislation, including the Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, the Veterans Choice Improvement Act and the Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act.

However, despite these early legislative achievements, after four years of the Trump administration, is the VA better off now than it was four years ago? 

And, as veterans and stakeholders anxiously await the appointment of the next VA secretary, what kind of department will the new appointee inherit?

The answer is a mixed bag. Despite some progress, the past four years at the VA have been largely complicated by chaos and in-fighting, which has been detrimental to a number of veterans and also interfered with the implementation of a number of the administration’s policy objectives.

First, there is the question of what the lasting impact of the numerous leadership transitions will be going forward. Like other aspects of the Trump administration, the VA has been plagued with unnecessary instability caused by reactive personnel changes based largely on perceptions of loyalty related to Trump and his inner circle.

Early on, there was the firing of Secretary David Shulkin via Tweet, after controversy surrounding his use of taxpayer funds for travel. Shulkin contended that he was set up, blaming political appointees, known as “the Mar-A-Lago Trio,” who, “when they didn’t see that their way was being adopted, used subversive techniques to be able to change leadership at the VA.” Shulkin ultimately wrote a book about his experience.

Trump’s next acting VA secretary, Peter O’Rourke, a Trump loyalist once seen as a “rising star” at the VA, presided over the department during “a tumultuous period from which the VA has not yet fully recovered, when infighting at its senior levels threatened the president’s agenda for veterans.” 

Specifically, O’Rourke clashed with lawmakers when he refused to release records to the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) regarding the performance of the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, which he previously ran before moving up through the agency. According to the OIG’s report, O’Rourke secured favorable outcomes for his allies, and unfairly targeted others by refusing to acknowledge requests for anonymity and using inept investigative procedures, going so far as failing to interview the subjects of some complaints. O’Rourke ultimately resigned at Secretary Robert Wilkie’s request, but not before further angering lawmakers and stakeholders by doing no work for several months but continuing to receive a taxpayer-funded salary.

Most recently, Wilkie has come under fire for also engaging in retaliation against former VA deputy secretary and general counsel, James Byrne, who alleges that he was fired for failing to go along with a conspiracy that involved attempting to damage the reputation and credibility of a female Navy veteran who spoke out publicly about an alleged sexual assault at a VA facility.

According to Byrne, Wilkie told him, “I got you confirmed. And a good deputy protects his secretary, does his dirty work for him. I need you to get this information out.” Now, even as the Trump administration enters its final weeks, some are calling for Wilkie to resign as a result of these allegations.

In addition to the dearth of stability at the senior leadership level, veterans and stakeholders have also been negatively impacted by a tumultuous relationship between the VA press, which has been marred by a lack of transparency and the frequent withholding of information.

“Like Trump, the VA’s Office of Public Affairs now seems to deeply value loyalty above all else,” concluded Jasper Craven, an investigative reporter who recently documented his and other journalists difficulty receiving feedback to even simple questions from the VA, “[t]he end goal of this obstruction, obfuscation, and unbridled obedience to Trump is clear: successfully conjure a false reality.”

With regard to the recent example involving Byrne, Newsweek reporter Naveed Jamali noted that, in response to a series of questions, he received a response from a VA spokesperson “that we could not print [because] we were concerned it was libelous against Mr. Byrne.”

Similarly, Stars and Stripes reporter Steve Beynon reported that, in his interview with Byrne, the VA’s press shop “would often make fun of reporters and purposefully be difficult, ‘they would be cute drafting quotes, split hairs…and be dishonest. It was a game…the media is the evil empire to them.’”

Finally, there is also the question of how the Trump administration’s policy changes will be implemented under a new administration. Trump’s signature legislation, expansion of the Choice Act, was recently criticized in a September 2020 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, which found that a number of improvements were needed to ensure timely access to care. 

Similarly, his accountability legislation was dealt a major blow earlier this year when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit struck down several of its provisions, holding that the legislation could not be applied retroactively and that courts could, in fact, review applicable punishments.

And, finally, the appeals reform legislation has been criticized by one recently retired federal judge as “a tragedy,” stating that although he was “cautiously optimistic that this modernization act may help the system . . . it is tinkering around the edges, when a larger fix is needed.” 

Although President-elect Biden did not directly campaign much regarding veterans issues, the fact remains that there is much to be done to improve veterans care over the next four year.

Rory E. Riley-Topping is the founder of Riley-Topping Consulting, where she continues to work with various veterans organizations. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP). She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter @RileyTopping.

Tags 2016 campaign biden administration David Shulkin Department of Veterans Affairs Donald Trump Hillary Clinton James Wilkie Jeff Miller Joe Biden Robert Wilkie Trump administration Trump promises VA Veterans Veterans Affairs

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