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Republicans won’t probe influence of Trump friends at Department of Veterans Affairs

The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C.

STARS AND STRIPES

By LAUREN CLASON | CQ-Roll Call | Published: August 20, 2018

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Top Republican lawmakers have no plans to examine the alleged influence that a trio of President Donald Trump’s friends have at the Department of Veterans Affairs, even as Democrats call for an investigation.

The controversy peaked in recent weeks after reports that Marvel Entertainment Chairman Ike Perlmutter, Palm Beach doctor Bruce Moskowitz and D.C. lawyer Marc Sherman hold undue sway with VA leadership, including senior adviser Peter O’Rourke, who formerly served as acting secretary. Liberal veterans group VoteVets filed a lawsuit against the administration last week, claiming the VA is violating federal protocol related to private influence in matters of federal policy.

Scrutiny of the department is high as recently confirmed Secretary Robert Wilkie assumes control of a massive overhaul of the popular Veterans Choice Program giving veterans access to private doctors. Veterans groups are closely watching how the department will implement the bipartisan project, particularly whether it will funnel more resources away from VA facilities.

Multiple Democrats have called for an investigation into the influence of the three outsider advisers to Trump, and House VA Committee ranking member Tim Walz is seeking details of correspondence from the department. But Republican leaders of both the House and Senate veterans committees don’t agree the issue warrants congressional intervention.

Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson said the problem was largely solved after Wilkie was sworn in last month.

“I think we’re moving ahead,” he said. “Most of them are out of there.”

Isakson added that the three men worked around the committee but never affected the committee’s agenda.

“There wasn’t anything I could do about it,” he said. “It never caused us any trouble. It was certainly disruptive and held the VA back some, but we got a great secretary now.”

A spokeswoman for Tennessee Republican Phil Roe, Isakson’s counterpart on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said Roe also believes Wilkie is capable of running the agency independently despite outside pressure.

The VA has also rejected the notion that the three friends ever had any direct influence over the department.

“Secretary Wilkie has been clear how he does business — no one from outside the administration dictates VA policies or decisions — that’s up to him and President Trump,” spokesman James Hutton said in an email. “Period.”

But Democrats aren’t satisfied. Democratic Reps. Julia Brownley and Ann McLane Kuster have petitioned VA Inspector General Michael Missal to investigate and asked Roe to hold a hearing on the matter.

“Not only are these individuals making policy decisions without nomination by the President or Senate confirmation, they have reportedly made personnel decisions that adversely affected the careers of numerous VA employees who felt their counsel was contrary to the delivery of quality care to our nation’s veterans,” the congresswomen wrote to Missal.

Republicans are less concerned. Sen. Mike Rounds said he has concerns about the VA, but they don’t include Trump’s friends.

“I don’t know that it’s necessary to investigate it,” he said. “I think if the president wants to have discussions, he most certainly is welcome to bring in outsiders to have discussions.”

GOP Sen. Bill Cassidy said the issue has to be more than what he called “Trump derangement syndrome” on the part of the president’s critics to warrant an investigation. Presidents routinely have friends and other informal advisers they seek out for opinions, he added.

“I think it would have to make sure that it crossed those thresholds before I would be particularly concerned,” he said.

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