On Tuesday, President Donald Trump surprised a group of startled tourists in the White House basement, took meetings with senators, and met with leaders of the AFL-CIO and the Boy Scouts. On the same day, Trump bypassed a West Wing meeting of military veterans, who met with the president’s staff instead.
For the assembled veterans’ service organizations, which have a combined membership of about six million veterans, the missed connection with the president was the latest in a series of puzzling interactions with the Trump administration. Despite Trump’s audacious campaign promises to them, including a commitment to overhaul the long-troubled Veterans Administration and vow to “do everything for veterans,” Trump himself has still not met face-to-face with veterans groups since he was elected president.
Tuesday’s meeting, which was first reported by the Military Times, included Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, former Apprentice contestant Omarosa Manigault, and a handful of White House staffers. Although the meeting was not on the president’s official schedule, several attending the meeting said they fully expected they would have met with Trump by this point in the administration.
“I won’t say anyone told us we were meeting with the president, but it was implied that we would be able to voice our concerns to the boss, the guy who ultimately runs everything, which is the president,” said Joe Chenelly, executive director of AMVETS, one of the nation’s largest and oldest veterans service organizations.
Chenelly described the ongoing efforts by veterans groups to meet directly with the president since he was elected a fruitless effort that has left them feeling “completely rebuffed” by the White House.
“We feel like we really need the opportunity to talk directly to the Commander-in-Chief and the people making the decisions,” he said. “We were never given that opportunity, so that caused a lot of concern within our community to begin with.”
Following the Tuesday meeting, Verna Jones, executive director at the American Legion, also told the Military Times, “President Trump ran a campaign on helping veterans,” she said. “When you look at who he has met with since winning, he has to make sure to make veterans a priority still.”
To hear Trump during his “America First” presidential campaign, veterans were practically his sole priority. He tweeted repeatedly about “our great VETERANS,” and promised he’d “do everything for vets, who are being treated terribly.” In a summer speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Trump called veterans “the finest and bravest people on earth.”
“We are going to take care of our veterans like they’ve never been taken care of before,” he said at the time. He even promised to create a 24-hour White House hotline to answer complaints about the VA. If the hotline didn’t work, he said, “I will pick up the phone and fix it myself, if need be.”
Veterans voted for the president by a two-to-one margin over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. But 2016 has turned out to be the high point for Trump’s apparent focus on veterans. While the president-elect took a stream of visitors at his Trump Tower office, the veterans groups were not among them. Instead, they met in December with transition team staff in Washington to outline their priorities.
Several described their surprise at that meeting to see that Omarosa was not only present at the meeting, but appeared to be the most senior transition staff member attending, despite having no experience with either the VA or healthcare. Omarosa explained her qualifications by saying that she had once been a lieutenant chaplain with the California State Military Reserve.
“When Omarosa was introduced the room collectively gasped,” said one attendee, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid conflict with the White House. “There were people there missing limbs and she was once a chaplain with the militia.” Another in attendance said, “There was an obvious disconnect between that transition team and, at that point, New York.”
The next veterans meeting came in early February at the White House. The roundtable discussion included Trump for an hour-long “veterans listening session.” But this time, it was the veterans themselves who were not invited. Instead, Trump spoke with Shulkin and a group of healthcare executives about ways the VA could better serve veterans.
If Trump were to meet with the groups directly, he would likely hear about the ongoing need to modernize the appeals process for veterans applying for benefits, which can last as long as seven years. He would also likely hear that his federal hiring freeze has calcified the already slow-motion claims process, as well as a request to give Shulkin the tools he needs to impose accountability at the VA and its hospitals. The veterans would also likely share their deep anxiety that Trump may fully or partially privatize the VA, despite his promises over the summer to keep the VA public “because it is a public trust.”
Part of the concern comes from Trump’s close relationship with Pete Hegseth, an Army Reserve veteran, Fox News Contributor, and past executive director of Concerned Veterans for America, a Koch-funded 501(c)4 that had pushed for a massive overhaul of veterans health care. While the vets did not get a meeting at Trump Tower, Hegseth did. He was also reportedly a top choice to run the VA for Trump, a sign to veterans groups that privatization could be on the table.
But a bright spot for the veterans groups has been the man Trump chose for instead. The groups describe Shulkin as “positive,” “professional,” and “very receptive,” but they still worry that they may be at arm’s length from Trump.
“It was disturbing when I got out of the meeting and I looked at my phone and saw that the president had taken the time to meet with tourists instead,” Chenelly said. “I hope he can carve that time out for us soon.”
The White House did not respond to requests for comment for this article, but press secretary Sean Spicer proactively noted during his press briefing on Wednesday that Trump would be getting involved with the veterans groups soon. “I know the president looks forward to personally following up with the VSOs.”
The veterans would welcome the news, but at the moment, they seem to be taking all of Trump’s promises with a grain of salt. “He says a lot of things,” one group executive said. “But we’re waiting for him to do something.”