WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s slam on Sen. John McCain flips reality on its head when it comes to who gave veterans the option to see a private doctor at public expense. He also pins some of his woes in the Russia investigation on a distorted account of the late senator’s actions in the matter.
Trump overstates McCain’s role in aiding the FBI with a false chronology on when the senator provided a so-called “dossier” that detailed many salacious but unconfirmed details about Trump and his aides.
The president also got his history wrong on veterans.
“McCain didn’t get the job done for our great vets,” Trump said. “I got it done.”
Actually, McCain got it done.
Trump routinely takes full credit for enacting the Choice program, suggesting he had fulfilled a campaign promise to provide private-sector care for veterans while ignoring the fact that it was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2014. This time, his boast came as part of a broad-brush denunciation of McCain, the senator from Arizona, Vietnam war naval aviator and tortured prisoner of war who died in August of brain cancer.
A Fake and Phony Dossier
TRUMP: “John McCain received a fake and phony dossier. Did you hear about the dossier? It was paid for by Crooked Hillary Clinton. Right? And John McCain got it. He got it. And what did he do? He didn’t call me. He turned it over to the FBI, hoping to put me in jeopardy.” — remarks Wednesday at an Army tank factory in Lima, Ohio.
TRUMP: “So it was indeed (just proven in court papers) ‘last in his class’ (Annapolis) John McCain that sent the Fake Dossier to the FBI and Media hoping to have it printed BEFORE the Election. He & the Dems, working together, failed (as usual).” — tweet Sunday.
THE FACTS: Trump’s chronology is incorrect. McCain did not present then-FBI Director James Comey with a copy of the memos compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele until December 2016, according to a deposition from a McCain associate, David Kramer. FBI officials had access to Steele’s research on Trump before the election, as they referenced it as part of an application for a secret search warrant of Trump associate Carter Page.
Trump often claims falsely that special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe is based on the dossier. That probe is examining Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign. The FBI’s investigation actually began months before it received the dossier of anti-Trump research financed by the Democratic Party and Clinton’s campaign. The FBI probe’s origins were based on other evidence — not the existence of the dossier.
There is no evidence that McCain provided the dossier to the news media.
And while McCain famously racked up demerits and earned poor grades at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, he ultimately graduated fifth from the bottom of his 1958 class, not last.
An Expansion of the Program Achieved by McCain and Sanders
TRUMP: “The vets were on my side because I got the job done. I got Choice, and I got accountability. … For many decades, they couldn’t get it done. It was never done. I got it. Five months ago, I got it done. Choice.” — remarks in Ohio.
THE FACTS: What Trump got done was an expansion of the program achieved by McCain and Sen. Bernie Sanders, most prominent among the lawmakers who advanced the legislation signed by Obama.
McCain was a co-sponsor of the 2014 legislation to overhaul the Department of Veterans Affairs following a scandal at VA’s medical center in Phoenix, where some veterans died while waiting months for appointments for medical care. He was a key negotiator for the legislation establishing the Veterans Choice program, working with Sanders, the co-author of the bill. Sanders was then chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
McCain didn’t rest after the law was enacted. He fought to expand the program and achieved that, too, in his last months.
Congress approved the expansion in May and Trump signed the legislation in June. It’s named after three veterans who served in Congress.
One of them is McCain.
It’s called the John S. McCain III, Daniel K. Akaka, and Samuel R. Johnson VA Maintaining Internal Systems and Strengthening Integrated Outside Networks Act of 2018.
Trump Exaggerated What’s Been Accomplished
TRUMP: “Instead of waiting in line for two days, two weeks, two months, people waiting on line — they’re not very sick, by the time they see a doctor, they are terminally ill — we give them Choice. If you have to wait for any extended period of time, you go outside, you go to a local doctor, we pay the bill, you get yourself better, go home to your family — and we got it passed. We got it done.” — remarks in Ohio.
THE FACTS: As he does routinely, Trump exaggerated what’s been accomplished with his expansion.
Veterans still must wait for weeks before they can get private care outside the VA system.
The program currently allows veterans to see doctors outside VA if they must wait more than 30 days for an appointment or drive more than 40 miles (65 kilometers) to a VA facility. Under new rules to take effect in June, veterans are to have that option for a private doctor if their VA wait is only 20 days (28 for specialty care) or their drive is only 30 minutes.
But the expanded Choice eligibility may do little to provide immediate help. That’s because veterans often must wait even longer for an appointment in the private sector. Last year, then-Secretary David Shulkin said VA care is “often 40 percent better in terms of wait times” compared with the private sector. In 2018, 34 percent of all VA appointments were with outside physicians, down from 36 percent in 2017.
The VA also must resolve long-term financing because of congressional budget caps after the White House opposed new money to pay for the program. As a result, lawmakers could be forced later this year to limit the program or slash core VA or other domestic programs.
Also key to the program’s success is an overhaul of VA’s electronic medical records to allow seamless sharing of medical records with private physicians, a process expected to take up to 10 years. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has said full implementation of the expanded Choice program is “years” away.