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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump’s McCain Attack

Donald Trump distorts the facts in a recent op-ed in which he says Sen. John McCain has “abandoned our veterans” and “failed the state of Arizona and the country.”

  • Trump says McCain authored legislation “to cover up the VA scandal,” claiming the bill “made sure no one has been punished” at the Department of Veterans Affairs for falsifying data to mask long delays for care at VA hospitals. But VA officials have been punished, and the bill expanded the VA secretary’s power to discipline employees for misconduct.
  • Trump claims “1,000+ veterans died waiting for medical care” in the “VA scandal.” But an independent government report said it was “unable to conclusively assert” that delays caused veterans’ deaths. The 1,000 figure comes from a news report on the number of wrongful death payments involving veterans who received inadequate VA care.
  • He says McCain has made the U.S. “less safe,” citing as evidence the fact that McCain “even voted for the Iran Nuclear Review Act of 2015,” which gave Congress the right to vote on the Iran nuclear deal. Trump doesn’t mention that the bill passed the Senate 98-1.

The New York real estate mogul, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, has been rising in the polls. The latest Washington Post-ABC News Poll shows that 24 percent of registered Republicans and Republican-leaning independents support him for president. That gives him a double-digit lead over his nearest competition, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (13 percent) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (12 percent).

Trump came under heavy criticism for saying at a July 18 event in Iowa that McCain is “not a war hero.” McCain, who was the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, served in Vietnam and was held captive for more than five years.

In response to the criticism of his comments on McCain, Trump wrote a July 19 op-ed for USA Today that carried the headline “Trump: I don’t need to be lectured.” The op-ed lists the ways that Trump believes McCain has “failed the state of Arizona and the country.”

Trump has every right to express that opinion, but he twists the facts when providing his supporting evidence.

The ‘VA Scandal’

In his op-ed, Trump writes about the wait-list controversy that cost VA Secretary Eric Shinseki his job.

The controversy originated at the Phoenix VA Health Care System in McCain’s home state of Arizona. The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs revealed on April 9, 2014, that the Phoenix VA was keeping two sets of records to hide long waits for health care appointments and that “as many as 40 veterans” may have died because of the delayed care, the Arizona Republic reported.

An internal audit conducted by the VA in May and June 2014 found the problem of fraudulent scheduling was widespread, as USA Today reported at the time.

Congress responded with legislation — sponsored in the Senate by Bernie Sanders, who’s running for the Democratic nomination for president, and cosponsored by McCain — called the Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act of 2014.

Trump, July 19: Thanks to McCain and his Senate colleague Bernie Sanders, their legislation to cover up the VA scandal, in which 1,000+ veterans died waiting for medical care, made sure no one has been punished, charged, jailed, fined or held responsible. McCain has abandoned our veterans. I will fight for them.

There are multiple issues with this excerpt, but let’s first consider the claim that the legislation was “to cover up the VA scandal” and that it “made sure no one has been punished.”

The fact is that eight VA employees have been punished, although that’s not as many as some in Congress — including McCain — would like.

New York Times, April 22: The documents given this month to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, which provided them to The New York Times, show that the department punished a total of eight of its 280,000 employees for involvement in the scandal. One was fired, one retired in lieu of termination, one’s termination is pending, and five were reprimanded or suspended for up to two months.

In addition, the legislation that Trump criticizes provided the VA secretary with greater authority to discipline senior employees. A summary of the conference report drafted by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee listed the ways that the bill provided “real accountability” for misconduct:

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, 2014: To provide real accountability for incompetent or corrupt senior managers, the bill would:
— Authorize VA to fire or demote Senior Executive Service (SES) employees and Title 38 SES equivalent employees for poor performance or misconduct.
— Provide an expedited and limited appeal process for employees disciplined under this authority. Appeals would go to a Merit Systems Protection Board administrative judge, who would have 21 days to decide on the appeal. If a decision is not reached within that 21-day period, then VA’s decision to remove or demote the executive is final.
— Prohibit SES employees from receiving pay, bonuses and benefits during the appeal process.

As for his claim that “1,000+ veterans died waiting for medical care,” Trump is conflating two issues: the wait-list controversy and the number of wrongful death settlements at VA hospitals.

Trump’s op-ed links to a news article about a June 2014 report released by Sen. Tom Coburn’s office that said: “Over the past decade, more than 1,000 veterans may have died as a result of VA malfeasance.” A footnote in Coburn’s report explains that the 1,000 figure comes from a Center for Investigative Reporting project on wrongful death settlements at VA hospitals.

Coburn’s report links to a CIR story that ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer that says “nearly 1,000” payments were made over a 10-year period for a variety of reasons to the families of veterans who received inadequate care at the VA.

Center for Investigative Reporting, April 3, 2014: In that time, CIR found the agency made wrongful death payments to nearly 1,000 grieving families, including 36 in Pennsylvania, ranging from decorated Iraq War veterans who shot or hanged themselves after being turned away from mental health treatment, to Vietnam veterans whose cancerous tumors were identified but allowed to grow, to missed diagnoses, botched surgeries and fatal neglect of elderly veterans.

The full CIR report, which can be found on the group’s website, and the Inquirer article both quote VA spokeswoman Victoria Dillon as saying “any adverse incident for a veteran within our care is one too many,” but the wrongful deaths over that 10-year period represented a small percentage of VA patients. The article said there are “more than 6 million veterans who seek care from the agency every year.”

As for the number of deaths caused by the wait-time scandal, the Office of Inspector General within the Department of Veterans Affairs issued a final report in August 2014 on patient deaths at the Phoenix VA. The report said: “While the case reviews in this report document poor quality of care, we are unable to conclusively assert that the absence of timely quality care caused the deaths of these veterans.”

On Sept. 17, 2014, Acting Inspector General Richard Griffin testified before a House committee that his office could not prove causality.

“As I cautioned in my May 15, 2014, testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, it is one thing to be on a waiting list and it is another thing to conclude that being on a waiting list caused death,” Griffin said in his testimony.

Iran Nuclear Deal

Trump also criticizes McCain for voting for the Iran Nuclear Review Act of 2015, citing it as evidence that McCain “has made America less safe.”

Trump, July 19: He even voted for the Iran Nuclear Review Act of 2015, which allows Obama, who McCain lost to in a record defeat, to push his dangerous Iran nuclear agreement through the Senate without a supermajority of votes.

Again, Trump is entitled to his opinion. But he leaves out some important context — beginning with the fact that the bill passed the Senate 98-1 and the House 400-25. Trump fails to mention that when singling out McCain for capitulating to President Obama.

The bill — which is actually called the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 — was a compromise between Congress and the White House that allowed Congress to review and possibly vote to reject the deal. It also imposed some requirements on the administration.

As the New York Times reported, it would “require that the administration send the text of a final accord, along with classified material, to Congress as soon as it was completed. It also would halt any lifting of sanctions pending a 30-day congressional review and culminate in a possible vote to allow or forbid the lifting of congressionally imposed sanctions in exchange for the dismantling of much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor during the vote on May 7 called the bill “the best chance for our constituents, through the Congress they elect, to weigh in on the White House’s negotiations with Iran.” The president signed it on May 22.

Congress could block the nuclear agreement, if it musters the two-thirds majority that would be needed to override a veto that the president has promised if Congress voted to reject the deal.

Trump is free to criticize the legislation and McCain for voting for it, just as he is free to criticize McCain for cosponsoring the VA legislation. But in both cases he goes too far when he distorts and obscures the facts to fit his narrative.

— Eugene Kiely