Trump Transition Team Meets With Veterans Groups to Discuss VA Reforms

"Listening session" was friendly, but VSOs are prepared to fight back.

President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team met with leaders in the veteran community for the first time on Thursday, with the two sides amicably discussing the organizations’ goals for reforming the Veterans Affairs Department.

Six Trump advisers, including some but not all of the individuals he named to his VA landing team, met with representatives of more than 30 veterans service organizations at the American Legion office in downtown Washington, D.C. The VSOs did nearly all of the talking, with transition officials content to listen to the groups’ concerns and priorities.

While some of the reforms Trump advocated on the campaign trail and the views of those he has either appointed or met with on VA issuese are in stark contrast to the solutions the veterans groups have proposed, VSO leaders said the transition members were friendly and receptive to their ideas. 

Trump’s team and the groups hold some “opposing views,” said Verna Jones, American Legion’s executive director, but she was “very pleased” with how the meeting went. Everyone in the room, she said, wants “to do what is best for veterans.”

Attendees of the meeting, which was closed to press, noted the attentiveness of the Trump’s delegation and their incessant note-taking. Still, the VSOs in a press conference after their meeting were not shy about voicing their disagreements with some of the positions voiced by Trump and his allies in the past. Trump has met with and is considering nominating for VA secretary former CEO of the conservative-aligned Concerned Veterans for America, Pete Hegseth. He has placed a senior adviser to the group, Darin Selnick, on his VA landing team that is at the department working with career employees and outgoing political officials to prepare the next administration.

Since it launched in 2012, CVA and the other, larger veterans groups have consistently been at odds. The VSOs represented at the Thursday meeting have said CVA’s proposals to limit government’s role in providing care to veterans by expanding “choice” in the private sector is, at its core, a shift toward privatization. Jones and other leaders reiterated on Thursday any such shift would be a “slap in the face” and their groups are prepared to fight back against any effort to get rid of or undermine the Veterans Health Administration.

Sherman Gillums Jr., executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America, said his group faced an “obligation to resist” attempts to move veterans away from VA care. He acknowledged there remains a lot of work to do to make the VA perform better, suggesting among several proposals the department hire more nurses and physicians.

Despite the disagreements, the Trump administration will likely find an ally in the veterans groups as it attempts to ease the disciplinary process for senior VA employees. Rick Weidman, executive director of Vietnam Veterans of America, said VA needed to more efficiently “weed out the folks that need to go away.” In his official campaign proposal to reform the VA, Trump vowed to use his signature phrase on “incompetent” VA executives: “They’re fired.”

Weidman and Gillums said the 31 groups in attendance on Thursday were “united” in their desire to see increased accountability for VA’s senior executives. Congressional Republicans have pushed to ease the firing of all VA employees even as its 2014 reform efforts have run into legal troubles.

The VSOs said they were confident the 115th Congress would recognize the logic of maintaining a strong VA and the need to invest in its infrastructure. They appealed to Trump’s business sense, saying his experience in the private sector should alert him to the dollar-for-dollar value of the department and its network of health care facilities.

All of the leaders applauded the reform efforts undertaken by current VA Secretary Bob McDonald, but said they did not discuss with Trump’s team any names for future leadership. Trump’s ensemble included Steve Buyer, a former Indiana congressman and House Veterans Affairs' Committee chairman; Mike Meese, from the American Armed Forces Mutual Aid Association; Bill Chatfield, former director of the Selective Service; Matthew Miller, formerly with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America; Eric Ueland, a former Capitol Hill staffer; and Omarosa, a former contestant on the Trump-hosted reality show The Apprentice.

The meeting was a first step, with Trump’s team already informing the groups it would meet with the six congressionally-chartered veterans organizations again next week. In the meantime, the transition members asked the VSOs to send in their policy ideas and position papers for review.