Top veterans groups talk about seeking an in-person discussion with Trump
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 13, 2016
WASHINGTON – The country’s six largest veterans service organizations discussed Tuesday making an appeal to President-elect Donald Trump for an in-person meeting to talk about veterans issues.
The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Vietnam Veterans of America, American Veterans and Disabled Veterans of America collectively represent millions of veterans and are known informally in Washington as the “Big Six.” Though they’ve met twice with Trump’s transition team, they have not been invited to meet with Trump directly, said Joe Chenelly, executive director of American Veterans.
“The Big Six are trying to reach out in a formal way today,” Chenelly said Tuesday. “We know time is not our friend right now, it’s working against us. Every day is really important right now.”
Tom Berger with Vietnam Veterans of America said a letter to Trump was “making its rounds” among leaders of the six organizations, but he wasn’t certain whether it would be sent to Trump on Tuesday.
Chenelly said the groups should have greater input on what happens with the Department of Veterans Affairs under the new administration and who is selected as next VA secretary. Chenelly also said he wasn’t confident the information that they have provided to Trump’s team was properly recorded.
Thirty-one veterans groups attended a meeting with Trump’s transition team in November, and each was allotted three minutes to talk about issues important to them, Chenelly said. The Big Six provided more input during a two-hour meeting Friday.
Several members of the transition team didn’t attend either meeting, he said.
“We really don’t know a lot about who the conduit is, how the information flows, how it’s recorded, how it’s being presented to [Trump],” Chenelly said. “We do feel like we need to speak directly with President-elect Trump, and we’re expressing that to him now. He did say veterans were one of his priorities, and we feel it’s necessary to meet with him and explain in person.”
Multiple news outlets reported the six organizations told officials on Trump’s transition team Friday that they could not support two candidates for VA secretary: former Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., and Pete Hegseth, former executive of conservative-leaning Concerned Veterans for America, which has been linked financially to billionaires Charles and David Koch. Both candidates are also Fox News contributors.
“I would say we need someone who has a deeper understanding of what the VA is, and a wider level of professional experience than those people necessarily have,” Chenelly said.
Chenelly, and the American Veterans group, publicly stated Trump’s transition team should consider keeping VA Secretary Bob McDonald in the position. In a written statement, the group said McDonald has made progress in transforming the VA in his two years as secretary and he “deserves the opportunity to see it through.”
“Things are going well at the VA, which is not something we’ve been able to say with a straight face in quite awhile,” Chenelly said. “[McDonald] put together with the [veterans service organizations] a pretty in-depth transformation plan. We see some real progress coming from that now. We don’t think it would be good for vets for that to stop.”
McDonald has not said whether he’s in the running to keep his post. Trump’s transition team has not confirmed candidates for the position.
During a public discussion at the Center for New American Security on Tuesday, McDonald said: “I’m not running for anything.”
“I’m happy doing this,” he said of being VA secretary. “I’m also happy to retire, like I was before.”
McDonald made a pitch Tuesday for Trump and his team to keep upper-level VA staff, even if the decision is made to replace him as secretary.
“If for political reasons you need to change the secretary, leave the people in place who have been doing this,” he said. “We’re moving in the right direction. We’re not all the way there yet, but we’re making progress.”
The message was echoed by Rick Weidman, executive director of government affairs with Vietnam Veterans of America, who asked for continuity in at least some VA leadership positions in order to continue with transformation efforts in the beleaguered agency.
In an interview with Stars and Stripes in November, Weidman said he would like to see Trump keep David Shulkin, the VA’s under secretary for health, and Linda Schwartz, the assistant secretary for policy and planning.
“We would argue they ought to keep at least those two people,” Weidman said. “They’re not political at all.”
A decision to keep McDonald as VA Secretary would diverge from Trump’s campaign message to up end the agency and “drain the swamp” in Washington. Trump was highly critical of the VA on the campaign trail.
Concerned Veterans for America has also been critical of the VA, and of McDonald. Besides Hegseth, two others linked to CVA are part of Trump’s transition team.
Hegseth and Brown have said they would prioritize firing or disciplining poor-performing VA employees, which Trump has said is important to reforming the agency.
During a campaign event this summer, Trump said he would consider Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., as the agency’s next secretary. As chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee for the past six years, Miller has become one of the VA’s harshest critics. It has not been confirmed whether Trump’s team has approached Miller about the job.