Fox News host Pete Hegseth presents himself to viewers as the G.I. Joe of conservative commentary. Armed with a silver tongue and two Bronze Stars, the Iraq War veteran routinely weaponizes the credibility conferred through military service to cast Democrats as enemies of the troops.
His routine was on full display in late September, when Hegseth interviewed Darin Selnick and Peter O’Rourke, two Trump-era Veterans Affairs officials who have recently started a MAGA-tinged think tank: the Veterans 4 America First Institute (V4AF). Both Selnick and O’Rourke enacted controversial policies and became engulfed in scandal during their time in Trump’s administration. Hegseth, predictably, skipped over this inconvenient information. Instead, he framed the duo as ethical paragons spotlighting corruption inside President Joe Biden’s VA.
Much of the interview revolved around veterans’ alleged inability to access private health care. While O’Rourke acknowledged that the VA “sometimes” provides good care, he argued that veterans should enjoy unimpeded access to private providers. Selnick more forcefully asserted that Biden was neglecting Trump’s signature patient care privatization law—the VA Mission Act—with fatal results.
“There’s a terrible cancel culture at the VA now where they are literally canceling veterans’ appointments and denying them community care,” Selnick warned. “We all know delayed care kills.” He ended with a snappy political smear that seemed designed in a lab: “Biden’s bottom line: leaving veterans behind.”
The fight over veterans’ health care has been long, brutal, and largely one-sided. Hegseth kicked it off in the early days of Barack Obama’s second term. Back then, he was CEO of a fledgling Koch-backed group called Concerned Veterans for America (CVA). He and other CVA surrogates mostly spun stories that framed the VA as a failed experiment in socialized medicine. This culminated in 2014 with a patient wait-time scandal in Phoenix, Arizona. The story raised CVA’s power and profile, spurred monumental policy changes, and wrought deep political damage to Democrats just ahead of the midterm election.
Now, as Biden eyes an increasingly tricky 2022 map, Hegseth, CVA, and their new Trump allies from V4AF are replicating the 2014 playbook. Again, this work can be loosely traced to the Kochs but remains mostly shrouded under the cover of dark money. (V4AF’s website says its application to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit is pending, so its sources of funding are unclear.)
The group’s campaign promises to be a ruthless, multifront affair, one involving media influence, congressional arm-twisting, and legal action.
Already, V4AF is writing thinly sourced articles explaining how the VA is “killing its veterans,” while the Kochs have recently deployed a fleet of lobbyists to support a string of hard-core privatization proposals. (Despite claiming to support all vets, a separate Koch-connected group, Concerned Women for America, has lobbied to prevent the VA from providing gender-confirmation surgeries.) The Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity Foundation, meanwhile, has filed a lawsuit seeking comprehensive wait-time data for private veteran appointments across the country.
Selnick, himself a CVA adviser, previewed this campaign in a March op-ed in USA Today. “It all adds up to another wait-time scandal waiting to happen,” he wrote.
During his 2016 run, Donald Trump seized on simmering public resentment over Obama’s VA. On Election Day, he won a greater share of veteran voters than John McCain had eight years earlier, many of them concentrated in swing states.
The juicing of wait-time data was previously identified in watchdog reports when George W. Bush was president. But it wasn’t until the summer of 2014 that local and national news outlets paid attention. A CNN segment, dramatically titled “A Fatal Wait,” focused on the tragic story of a 71-year-old Navy veteran who died while waiting for care in Phoenix.
Hegseth and CVA pounced. The group deployed lobbyists to Congress demanding VA “accountability” and health care “choice”—code for weakened union rights and privatization. Hegseth, Selnick, and others pushed their demands through op-eds, attack ads, congressional testimony, and a protest in Phoenix that drew 150 veterans. CVA also launched a “Defend Freedom” bus tour that featured numerous speakers, including Hegseth, and songs from what CVA deemed “America’s most patriotic rock band.”
Americans became upset over Obama’s handling of veterans issues, and Congress passed the dysfunctional VA Choice Act, which funneled millions of veterans into unaccountable and often substandard private care. (Along the way, this law also enriched massive health care contractors.)
Weeks after the act passed, the VA’s Office of Inspector General undermined the key claim of the whole scandal. “We are unable to conclusively assert that the absence of timely quality care caused the deaths of these veterans,” the watchdog concluded. Yet few journalists or politicians were interested in correcting the record. Despite the fact that Obama’s VA secretary, Eric Shinseki, had secured historic budgets, expanded the G.I. Bill, and slashed the number of backlogged benefit claims by 44 percent, he resigned under pressure from Republican lawmakers. That November, Democrats failed to retake the House and lost the Senate.
Trump continued the pressure during his presidential campaign, with an explicit promise to “Make the VA Great Again.” Yet Trump’s department quickly became overwhelmed by strife and scandal, much of it perpetrated by the characters now claiming Biden has veterans’ blood on his hands. He almost nominated Hegseth to be VA secretary, but instead relied on him as an outside adviser. Hegseth used this influence to secure pardons for accused war criminals and lobbied the White House to preserve a loophole in the G.I. Bill that incentivized predatory for-profit colleges. For official roles, Trump turned to Selnick, O’Rourke, and Casin Spero, another CVA alum who forced the VA to abandon evidence-based practices and embrace snake oil PTSD treatments.
Trump’s first major VA reform was the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, which created an office that O’Rourke headed. Despite the law’s name, O’Rourke’s office often retaliated against whistleblowers. Over 1,000 agency employees were demoted, suspended, or fired, often based on scant evidence. When, in 2018, lawmakers sought information into the office’s dysfunction, O’Rourke allegedly lied and withheld information, prompting demands for a criminal probe.
O’Rourke and Selnick faced allegations of misusing taxpayer resources. O’Rourke was forced to resign after officials complained to The Washington Post that he was doing little work for his $161,000 salary. Selnick landed in hot water after ProPublica reported that he was commuting between his California home and D.C. on the taxpayer dime.
Perhaps the most scandalized Trump VA official was his second secretary, Robert Wilkie, now a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Wilkie’s long list of misdeeds includes a campaign to discredit a former House staffer and Navy veteran after she publicly reported being sexually assaulted at a VA hospital. He also oversaw the experimental dosing of 8,000 sick veterans with the anti-malarial pill hydroxychloroquine, which Trump touted without evidence as a miracle cure. A subsequent study into this mass dosing found “higher rates of death” among patients. Yet Wilkie recently bragged to Breitbart about his tenure, and suggested that Biden had stocked his department with Phoenix-era officials who’d left “veterans dying in hallways.”
Washington brain trusts have long rehabilitated the reputations of questionable government officials. Just as Heritage sustains Wilkie’s legitimacy, V4AF is providing a space for controversial figures with unpopular ideas to flourish.
Other V4AF leaders include John Ullyot, a former Trump VA communications staffer who pressured the department’s chief diversity officer to remain mum after the violence in Charlottesville. There’s also Camilo Sandoval, the VA’s former chief information officer, who, as Trump’s 2016 campaign data director, was sued for sexual harassment and became tied up with the scandalous Cambridge Analytica data deal.
The nonprofit’s ideas are circulating in the press and were recently boosted on Twitter by Newt Gingrich. At first blush, they sound positive and benign. According to O’Rourke and Selnick, the group’s primary aims are “becoming a watchdog for VA” and defending “real, permanent choice of using private healthcare providers.” In selling these policies, however, V4AF concocts scandals and misconstrues data. Selnick recently argued, for instance, that health equity among minority vets could only be achieved in the private sector. The truth is that the VA generally minimizes inequities better than any other system. One recent study found that, in contrast to the private sector, there has been no racial death disparity among VA patients with Covid-19.
While Selnick and his cronies continue to cry foul on wait-times, the VA today offers a radically open and comprehensive wait-time portal. A VA spokesperson told me that the average wait for a veteran with urgent needs is under two days. Over the last year, he added, the VA delivered the most care in its history, a whopping 78.8 million appointments.
Perhaps the best evidence to counter claims that the VA is one big death factory came in a study late last year. It found that veterans transported via ambulance to the VA instead of a private hospital were far likelier to stay alive. “Survival gains persist for at least a year after the initial ambulance ride,” the study found. “And they accrue despite lower spending in the VA.”
It shouldn’t be difficult for the left to mount a strong defense of the most progressive agency in government. A tall stack of academic reports makes clear that the VA outperforms the private sector on nearly every metric (including wait-times). The VA provides free college, free health care, low-interest home loans, and a pioneering campaign to end homelessness. Right-wing forces have clearly zeroed in on the VA to discredit these sorts of programs in hopes that they’re never expanded to civilians.
Yet Democrats remain skittish to promote these programs in what seems to be a strange side effect of the party’s refusal to fully embrace progressivism. Some current VA officials are aware of this percolating misinformation campaign from V4AF and are debating how to avoid the mistakes of the past. But the final strategy will almost certainly be dictated by VA Secretary Denis McDonough, a brilliant if tepid Washington operator who, as Obama’s chief of staff, oversaw the lackluster response to the Phoenix scandal. If he reverts to his previous tactics, history may repeat itself, and the most liberal wing of the federal government will once again be weakened under a Democratic president.