The Koch-funded group Concerned Veterans for America — which pushes for privatization of the Veterans Health Administration — has been around for less than a decade, but the full weight of its influence within the Trump administration is evident not just in federal policy but also in thousands of pages of public records.
Documents obtained by American Oversight in response to Freedom of Information Act requests and litigation contain numerous emails and records of meetings between CVA representatives and high-level Department of Veterans Affairs officials, as well as resumes of VA officials who formerly worked for CVA. Some of the correspondence contained briefing materials that the VA had initially redacted using the “interagency deliberation” exemption — essentially claiming that CVA was operating as an internal consultant — though the department eventually lifted those redactions.
CVA is backed by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, and its rise in influence has been a subject of increasing concern. What was in recent years a small and obscure organization advocating for privatization of the nation’s largest health-care system has turned into what the Washington Post described as “one of the most muscular arms of the conservative Koch network,” with the political sway to shape national policy — and even help bring about cabinet-level changes.
Former VA Secretary David Shulkin was fired in March 2018 because he reportedly stood in the way of “political forces” that stood to benefit from a shrunken health-care system that had long been under attack by conservatives. An April 2018 Washington Post article said that Shulkin’s firing “underscores the growing clout that CVA is wielding in the Trump era through a national grass-roots network and sympathetic officials in the White House.”
Early in his tenure, however, Shulkin seemed to recognize CVA’s political pull and met with the organization on at least two occasions. Calendars obtained by American Oversight include an entry for a June 28, 2017, meeting that CVA had requested. At the time, Shulkin was reportedly in CVA’s good books, and the background materials provided for the meeting include a statement from CVA praising the secretary for his recent testimony before the Senate. The background material also included a note from Shulkin’s staff that said: “The White House has included CVA in its meetings and they’ve become more supportive of VA. However, traditional VSO [veterans service organizations] remain skeptical of the organization and don’t consider them a VSO.”
Veterans service organizations (VSOs) like the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) have indeed long been wary of efforts to privatize veterans’ health care. Shulkin himself had co-authored a 2017 book called Best Care Everywhere that outlined multiple VA success stories. The publication has predictably not been touted by the administration — or even by Shulkin himself, who had previously served in the Obama administration as the under secretary for veterans affairs.
The day after meeting with CVA, Shulkin met with former Senator Bill Frist. The meeting had been arranged by Darin Selnick, a senior VA official who had worked for CVA prior to joining the Trump administration. (This past February, ProPublica reported that the VA had been paying for Selnick to commute twice a month from California to Washington, D.C., running up a taxpayer tab of $13,000 over three months.)
In July 2017, Shulkin sent an email to, presumably, Dan Caldwell, who was then CVA’s policy director and later executive director. Shulkin praised Caldwell for a recent Fox News appearance: “I saw your interview and town hall on fox and think you did a really nice job,” Shulkin wrote. “I think your setting the right tone to keep focus on the important issues but showing the President and I your constructive support for our reforms. It’s not easy as you know- lots of resisters are out there-but like you said im optimistic.”
Shulkin made his own appearance on Fox a few months later in a Veterans Day interview with Pete Hegseth, a Fox News host who had served as CVA’s executive director until 2016. And in December, Shulkin again met with CVA.
By the spring of 2018, however, Shulkin appeared to have lost the backing of CVA. The secretary had been publicly in favor of the June 2017 VA accountability bill — which President Donald Trump had signed “while flanked by CVA officials” — but reportedly wasn’t supportive of the group’s efforts to advance legislation allowing for more VA privatization. And in February, Shulkin was the subject of a scandal involving his misuse of taxpayer money on a European trip the previous year.
In an email sent on March 1, 2018, Caldwell congratulated VA official Peter O’Rourke for his recent appointment as chief of staff, and expressed his “hope that the VA can move past the recent drama.” Caldwell included a link to a USA Today article that had been published the day before about how one of Shulkin’s deputies, John Ullyot, had lobbied Congress to pressure the White House to fire Shulkin in a call initiated by VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour. In his email, Caldwell defended Cashour, saying he could “never see him doing what is described in the above article. … He never asked me or anyone else at CVA to help push the Secretary out.” Caldwell also refers to a call he had with Shulkin the previous week.
Less than a month later, Shulkin was shown the door. O’Rourke would serve for two months as acting secretary before Robert Wilkie took over in the summer, and then spent months on the payroll doing little work until he was forced out in December.
Under Wilkie, the VA maintained its consistent contact with CVA. While serving as acting secretary, Wilkie participated in an April 2018 breakfast with representatives of major VSOs and other VA officials, including Chief of Staff Peter O’Rourke. Correspondence about the breakfast included a proposed seating chart (note: the month at the top is incorrect) that places the CVA representative — Dan Caldwell — directly across from Wilkie and O’Rourke. CVA had not previously been invited to such events in the past, and a VA official shared the invite list with CVA.
In another email, a VA official defended CVA’s participation in the breakfast: “Just like the other comparable Veterans groups that attended, CVA represents an important voice on Veterans issues.” But in the email exchange among VA employees about the seating chart, one official said, “Shoot, I wanted to uninvite iava,” referring to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonpartisan group that had sometimes been critical of the administration.
Less than a month after the April 2018 breakfast, Wilkie met with Caldwell again. And in November, a year after Shulkin was on Fox News, Wilkie made his own appearance in an interview with Pete Hegseth.
(The VA isn’t the only federal agency at which Hegseth — who was recently in the news for having privately lobbied Trump to pardon U.S. servicemen accused of war crimes — appears to have influence. He also shows up as a contact in a Defense Department official’s phone book.)
Based on the documents American Oversight continues to receive in response to its records requests, it seems that CVA’s influence in Wilkie’s VA is as strong as ever. In January of this year, Caldwell was included on the invite list for another VSO meeting, along with representatives from the American Legion and the VFW.
In many of the CVA-related documents American Oversight obtained, the VA redacted the substance of communications under an exemption explicitly reserved for deliberations among agency employees or internal consultants. While the department eventually lifted these redactions, the use of FOIA’s Exemption 5 is a clear indication of CVA’s inside track within the administration. For example, in one instance, the VA obscured an entire CVA assessment from April 2017 about draft legislation.
The VA provided more records in response to American Oversight’s requests, and many of these improper redactions were gradually lifted. But a December 2018 email exchange between Caldwell and a VA official reveals the group’s continuing close involvement in VA policymaking.
In the initial message, the official mentioned a January meeting in Washington, D.C., and told Caldwell about the COVER Commission’s February trip to Arizona. “Given your experience with Veterans issues in the state, I wanted to reach out to see if there are any groups, non-profits, public entities, or state/local level programs we should meet with/evaluate,” the official wrote, and asked Caldwell that he “keep these items close hold while we notify our other VSO partners and publish the notice of meeting.” Caldwell responded with thanks and suggests arranging “a time to chat.”
Since Trump’s election, the Veterans Affairs Department has been yet another federal agency where moneyed external influences have eagerly intervened. Another example of such interference within the VA is that of the so-called Mar-a-Lago crowd — three members of Trump’s private club in Florida who have acted with the authority of high-ranking officials without holding any formal government positions.
Documents uncovered by American Oversight reveal that not only were these three associates (Ike Perlmutter, Bruce Moskowitz and Marc Sherman) involved in frequent high-level policy matters, but top VA officials, including Shulkin, used personal email to communicate with the trio. Another set of documents reveal May 2017 correspondence between two of the Mar-a-Lago members — Moskowitz and Sherman — and Darin Selnick, the VA official who had previously worked for CVA. And while the VA had lifted its internal-deliberations redactions on much of the CVA-related documents, it left such redactions on many of the communications of the Mar-a-Lago trio — another way such well-connected private citizens have been allowed to act with the authority of high-ranking officials without holding any formal government positions or being subject to the ethics requirements.
Former Secretary Shulkin’s ouster last year is just one of the many cabinet shakeups that have been a hallmark of the Trump administration. But as those government officials come and go, private associates of the president and Koch-funded organizations devoted to privatizing veterans’ health care have remained. We’re continuing to investigate the political sway these outside influences have exerted on federal policy that affects millions of Americans.