Internal VA emails critical of unofficial Trump ‘advisors’

Career officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs expressed deep frustrations over having to entertain “ridiculous” policy recommendations from a trio of influential Mar-a-Lago club members during President Donald Trump’s time in office, according to documents released by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics.

A series of internal emails spanning from November 2017 to June 2018, show that VA officials wrote to senior staffers with concerns about how this group of three, known within the department as “the Mar-a-Lago crowd,” was given the authority to influence policy despite having no government experience or expertise in veterans issues.

CNN has previously reported how this trio, which included Marvel Entertainment chairman Ike Perlmutter, Bruce Moskowitz, a Palm Beach doctor, and lawyer Marc Sherman, was very open about the fact that they had been “anointed by the President and had his full support to influence policy at the VA” despite never being appointed or installed as formal advisers, sources told CNN.

A former VA official previously told CNN that it was almost as if the Mar-a-Lago group were given influence over the agency as “spoils” after Trump’s election victory, adding that the dynamic was “unprecedented.”

Their influence at the agency caused “frustration and confusion … for career government employees having to work outside the bounds of what we know is right,” one former department official told CNN last year. “We tried on the government side to keep things appropriate, but senior VA officials were applying pressure to meet these outside demands.”

The emails released by CREW last week illustrate that frustration, showing how VA officials repeatedly chafed at having to meet with, and respond to, these informal advisers.

The documents also show that a VA official complained to one senior staffer that questions coming from one of the individuals were “just ridiculous” and “don’t make sense.”

In one email, VA staff wrote that an outside adviser was “out of his depth” in understanding the department’s electronic health records system.

In another exchange, a senior VA official told staff members that Marc Sherman does not “understand the context of government nor does he understand the [app development] contract,” noting that his involvement was causing those engaged in the process to “talk past each other.”

Yet, VA officials were still obligated to engage with the Mar-a-Lago crowd, even if it was considered to be a waste of time, because of their ties to Trump, the emails suggest.

“They are coming from POTUS friend/doctor,” reads one response to a frustrated official who was seeking guidance on how to address a series of “ridiculous” questions they received from one of the individuals.

“Handle sensitively and with facts,” the response said.

In another email, a VA official characterized a meeting with two members of the Mar-a-Lago crowd as “just a grin and bear it session.”

“To me the session tomorrow is just a grin and bear it session. I will have my listening hat on for two hours,” the official wrote.

The VA did not respond to CNN’s request for comment about the comments made in the emails nor the meetings themselves. The White House also did not offer comment.

Veterans Affairs spokesman Curt Cashour, responding to CNN’s request for comment last August, did not specifically address details about the three men but said in a statement that the department appreciates “hearing from experts both inside and outside VA as we look for better ways to serve our nation’s heroes.”

A representative for Perlmutter, Moskowitz, and Sherman did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Last year, an investigation by ProPublica found that Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman pushed for expanded use of private-sector health options at the VA, proposing to invite “private health care executives to tell the VA which services they should outsource to private providers like themselves.”

A former VA official corroborated that account to CNN, saying there was tension over the issue at the VA, with former Secretary David Shulkin accusing the Trump allies of wanting to privatize the VA’s health services. The three men told ProPublica they never sought or received financial gain for their work with the VA.

“While we were always willing to share our thoughts, we did not make or implement any type of policy, possess any authority over agency decisions, or direct government officials to take any actions,” the statement said.

Still, Congressional lawmakers have made it clear that they want to know more about their influence at the second largest federal agency and the current secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert Wilkie, has been under pressure to address concerns of improper influence.

On Wednesday, an advocacy group called Democracy Forward announced it is suing Wilkie, alleging he failed “to recover and preserve emails his predecessor, David Shulkin, sent from a personal account used to conduct government business with outside advisers.”

The suit alleges that Shulkin specifically created this private email account “to shield his discussions of VA business with the ‘Mar-a-Lago Crowd,'” according to a statement from Democracy Forward.

A spokesperson for the VA told CNN that the department does not comment on pending litigation.