Throughout both his campaign and his presidency, Donald Trump has insisted that reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs is a top priority. But according to a bombshell new report from ProPublica, the White House has essentially ceded control of the VA to a trio of the president’s rich buddies who he knows from his resort in Mar-a-Lago—none of whom are government employees.
The triumvirate of extra-governmental shot callers consists of Palm Beach doctor Bruce Moskowitz, attorney Marc Sherman, and, perhaps most notably, Marvel Entertainment chairman Ike Perlmutter. None of the three have ever served in the U.S. armed forces, although Perlmutter is an Israeli army veteran who fought in the 1967 Six Day War. What they do all possess, however, is expertise at giving Trump money; all three pay thousands of dollars a year to be Mar-a-Lago members.
ProPublica wrote that the group has been dubbed “the Mar-a-Lago crowd” and has reportedly helped shape both VA policy as well as staffing decisions throughout the Trump administration, all while flouting normal governmental procedure and rules. The result, ProPublica explained, is an agency in which officials must “kiss the ring” of this shadow trio to move on certain decisions.
“On any veterans issue, the first person the president calls is Ike,” one former administration official told the site. Perlmutter was also on hand at the White House when Trump signed an executive order for “Improving Accountability and Whistleblower Protection” at the VA in 2017.
According to VA documents ProPublica obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the Mar-a-Lago crowd’s guidance is often treated as orders, rather than external input.
“I will begin a project plan and develop a timeline for action,” VA chief of staff Peter O’Rourke wrote to Moskowitz, in response to an email offering his thoughts on one policy initiative this past February.
The outing of this unofficial troika only adds to the already-chaotic state of the VA under Trump. This has included the ignominious ouster of administrator David Shulkin, and the ensuing debacle over allegations of misconduct from his proposed replacement Ronnie Jackson. All the while, Trump’s much touted 24-hour hotline for veterans has become a bureaucratic nightmare for anyone calling to seek help.
In a statement to ProPublica, released through a crisis communications consultant, Moskowitz, Sherman, and Perlmutter denied any improprieties in their roles, saying they only offered help on a “voluntary basis” and didn’t order anyone to implement any policy. “To the extent anyone thought our role was anything other than that, we don’t believe it was the result of anything we said or did,” they wrote.
A VA spokesperson told ProPublica that the trio “have no direct influence over the Department of Veterans Affairs.”
Despite these denials, the allegations raised by the documents fit nicely into what we already know about Trump and his administration: Qualifications on an issue don’t really matter, just so long a someone has money—preferably flowing directly into the president’s pockets.