Republicans Won’t Probe Influence of Trump Friends at Veterans Department

Dems have questions about trio named in lawsuit

Veterans Affairs Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., speaks during a hearing of Veterans Affairs secretary nominee Robert Wilkie in front of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building Wednesday June 27, 2018. (Photo By Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

Updated 3:31 p.m. | 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.

On Monday, a handful of Senate Democrats on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, led by Sen. Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii, petitioned Chairman Johnny Isakson of Georgia to hold a hearing on the matter. The senators cited the three men’s reported interest in privatization, as well as their influence in a deal to revamp the VA’s electronic health records, as cause for concern.

“While many of the reported incidents occurred prior to now-Secretary Wilkie’s tenure at the VA, it is imperative that we receive his testimony about his interactions and communications with the trio and what actions he has taken and what actions he plans to take to ensure decisions at the VA are being driven by what is best for our veterans without undue outside influence or direction,” the Democrats wrote in a letter to Isakson.

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Ranking Member Tim Walz is also 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.

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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