Vets look to Trump for change

Vets look to Trump for change
© Getty

President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHR McMaster says president's policy to withdraw troops from Afghanistan is 'unwise' Cast of 'Parks and Rec' reunite for virtual town hall to address Wisconsin voters Biden says Trump should step down over coronavirus response MORE was propelled into the White House in part on his promise to take care of military veterans; now they are counting on him to follow through. 

“Mr. Trump kept veterans as a focal point throughout his campaign, and we expect him to do that as president,” said Raymond Kelley, national legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “We expect out of any president what we’ve expected out of any other president, which is to make veterans a priority and work with Congress to keep promises made to them.”

During his run for the presidency, Trump repeatedly vowed to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs, at one point even promising that he would set up a special White House hotline to personally field complaints about the veterans healthcare system.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), one of Trump’s advisors on veterans’ issues and a rumored choice for VA secretary, said the businessman is “precisely that leader” needed to fix issues at the VA. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“Instead of trying to sugarcoat the problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs, he has a plan to fix them that includes commonsense solutions such as protections for VA whistleblowers, accountability for bad employees and providing veterans with more health care options,” Miller said in a statement this week.

Trump has released a 10-point plan to “make the VA great again” that includes making it easier to fire VA officials involved in wrongdoing and expanding veterans’ choices to use private healthcare.

The plan also called for appointing a VA secretary who prioritizes veterans over bureaucrats and politicians, creating a commission to investigate wrongdoing, protecting VA whistleblowers, ending bonuses to VA employees who waste money, using executive power to discipline those involved in wrongdoing, increasing the number of mental health care professionals at the VA and reforming visa programs “to ensure American Veterans are in the front, not back, of the line.”

But Trump also courted controversy with veterans over the course of the campaign. He suggested Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe electoral reality that the media ignores Kelly's lead widens to 10 points in Arizona Senate race: poll COVID response shows a way forward on private gun sale checks MORE (R-Ariz.) isn’t a war hero because he was captured by enemy forces and feuded publicly with a Gold Star family that supported Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillicon Valley: FBI chief says Russia is trying to interfere in election to undermine Biden | Treasury Dept. sanctions Iranian government-backed hackers The Hill's Campaign Report: Arizona shifts towards Biden | Biden prepares for drive-in town hall | New Biden ad targets Latino voters FBI chief says Russia is trying to interfere in election to undermine Biden MORE’s campaign. 

But veterans came out to the polls for Trump in force, with exit polls indicating they voted for him over Clinton by a 2-1 margin.

Kelley said the VFW is encouraged by Trump’s talk of accountability at the VA and generally agrees with the principals in the 10-point plan.

ADVERTISEMENT

But Kelley added that the plan lacked details, such as what Trump means by expanding choice and whether he’ll seek to privatize the VA.

Trump will also face the same the hurdle that Congress has come up against for years: budget caps. The nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has estimated Trump’s VA reforms could top $500 billion over the next decade.

Trump has said he wants to end the budget caps, known as sequestration, for defense spending, but he will likely face opposition from fiscal conservatives.

“We’ve found in this Congress that the authorizers have a lot of good solutions, there’s just no funding to do it,” Kelley said, pointing to proposals that would fix issues in the post-9/11 G.I. bill related to for-profit colleges and improve how private doctors participating in the Veterans Choice Program are reimbursed, among other things.

Dan Caldwell, vice president of policy and communications at the conservative-backed Concerned Veterans for America (CVA), said his organization hopes Trump follows through on his promises, specifically by making it easier for the VA to fire bad employees and expanding the choice program. 

“If he does not keep his promises, we will hold him accountable just like any other politician,” Caldwell said. “We are hopeful based on the plan that the president-elect has laid out that there will be real substantial reform.”

The group was encouraged, Caldwell added, by Newt Gingrich’s remark Wednesday that Trump will make civil service reform a priority in his first 100 days. The effort would be aimed at making it easier for government agencies to fire bad employees.

The VA will also need a secretary “who has a backbone to stand up to entrenched bureaucracy,” Caldwell said, as well as strong undersecretaries of health and benefits to help the secretary implement reforms.

Veterans group Got Your Six said it’s already working closely with the Trump transition team to make sure veterans have a voice in the new administration.

"As leaders in the veteran empowerment movement, we are committed to collaborating and working with the new administration and the new Congress," said Bill Rausch, executive director of the non-partisan group.

"We are working closely with the Trump transition team to ensure that the military, veteran and family community continues to have a voice in the new administration," he told The Hill. 

The group said in a statement that it hopes the country will "come together," since the veteran community is "as diverse as the country we served."

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) also called for unity. 

"The voters have spoken and President-elect Donald Trump will soon be sworn in as our Commander in Chief. But first, we have some healing to do as a nation," said its CEO and founder Paul Rieckhoff.

"Our veterans are all too familiar with rough times and now stand ready to support that healing and serve as a bridge for all Americans."