WASHINGTON — President Trump held his first face-to-face meeting with representatives from prominent veterans groups on Friday, a step that community advocates called a productive and critical step in advancing the White House's promises to veterans.
The hour-long meeting with Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and senior White House staff covered issues including medical care access for veterans, accountability for VA employees, veterans caregiver programs and the president's campaign pledges to make veterans services more efficient.
It included top officials from 10 veterans groups and was billed as a listening session for the president, with no policy or legislative proposals presented to the community leaders.
But individuals at the event said Trump was involved in the conversation throughout the meeting, questioning the groups on their priorities and ways the White House can help.
"We've been asking for this meeting for a long time, and I think it was a great way to start a working relationship with this White House," said Joe Chenelly, national executive director of AMVETS. "Both the president and vice president were very engaged on the issues and wanted to hear from us."
Since his election last fall and inauguration in January, Trump has held several meetings with health care officials to talk about ways to solve problems with VA health care offerings. Earlier this month, veterans groups were invited to talk to senior staff about their priorities, but Trump did not attend.
That worried veterans advocates and Capitol Hill lawmakers, who warned that the White House needed to include the groups in any reform conversations. After Friday's meeting, those concerns largely disappeared.
"Coming out of the meeting, we believe that the president and his administration are committed to improving the VA system of care and expanding choices for veterans seeking healthcare outside of the VA system," Sherman Gillums Jr., executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America, said after the meeting.
"What's more, we are optimistic that with further collaboration between his administration and Secretary Shulkin, there is a new day dawning for the future of all healthcare for veterans that includes convenience, quality and adequate protections."
Trump spoke briefly to press at the start of the meeting, saying that "as commander in chief, I will not accept substandard service for our great veterans," and repeating his assertion that veterans have been treated poorly by VA in recent years.
"I outlined a detailed plan to reforming veterans’ care throughout the country, and we’re working to put that plan into effect," he said. "And it’s moving, I think I can say, honestly, ahead of schedule."
Officials in Friday’s meeting said Trump made no new promises to the groups, but did direct Pence to discuss the idea of a White House office for veteran empowerment after a suggestion from Got Your 6.
Bill Rausch, executive director of the group, said he pushed for administration officials to look beyond Veterans Affairs programs and challenges to larger societal issues for ways to help veterans, noting that not every veterans issue is one tied to health care and benefits.
Along with Got Your 6, the meeting included Student Veterans of America, the Military Order of the Purple Heart and the "big six" veterans groups — American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, PVA, Vietnam Veterans of America and AMVETS.
It was also the second White House veterans meeting for Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative-backed group that was shut out of similar meetings during President Barack Obama.
In a statement, CVA Executive Director Mark Lucas praised Trump for "a bold vision of VA reform that includes choice and accountability" and said his group is grateful that he "has given us a seat at the table in these important discussions."
Accountability was a highlighted topic at the meeting, as it was for Trump on the campaign trail. At one point, he promised to quickly fire any VA employee found committing criminal acts or workplace negligence, and if it violates federal employment policies, "they can sue me, I don’t care."
Officials from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said they were disappointed to be left off the event. Group officials are scheduled to meet with congressional and VA leadership next week in Washington D.C.
Trump said before Friday’s meeting that he’ll also again be discussing VA reform with health care executives this weekend, at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.