Former White Home Chief of Employees Denis McDonough
In early 2014, CNN grew to become feverishly and foolishly obsessive about one factor: Malaysia Airways Flight MH370. The community’s droning protection of this airplane was mocked not solely by respected journalists and the general public however even by President Barack Obama. Throughout the 2014 White Home Correspondents Dinner, Obama joked, “I’m completely satisfied to be right here, though I’m a bit of jet-lagged from my journey to Malaysia — the lengths we have now to go to get CNN protection as of late.” Because the ballroom exploded in laughter, Obama took one other jab at CNN President Jeff Zucker and different community large wigs in attendance, suggesting that “they’re nonetheless trying to find their desk.”
One month after that dinner, CNN aired a narrative that precipitated one of the crucial damaging if under-appreciated scandals of Obama’s presidency. The bombshell report — dramatically titled “A Deadly Wait” — dug deep into the Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, the place employees had been logging inaccurate scheduling knowledge as a way to cowl up wait instances for care that averaged about three months.
The story — which obtained primetime remedy as a part of Anderson Cooper’s recurring “Protecting Them Sincere” phase — basically picked up and repackaged earlier reporting. But CNN injected a number of coronary heart into the piece by specializing in the tragic story of a 71-year-old Navy veteran who died whereas ready for care.
The habits uncovered inside Phoenix was unethical and dishonest, however it was removed from the scandal CNN hyped it as much as be. Ignored of the report was a tragic however important reality: folks die on a regular basis whereas ready for well being care. Some die whereas ready for lifesaving procedures, others move ready for routine dentist appointments. The purpose is that this: correlation doesn’t equal causation.
One other crucial level: tens of 1000’s of civilians die yearly as a result of they haven’t any well being protection in any respect. The VA which, in contrast, affords free, high-quality healthcare to thousands and thousands of veterans, is in reality a paragon of a humane healthcare system.
Quite than put the scandal into the correct context, CNN gave it The Malaysian Remedy™. Pundits instantly tied lengthy wait instances to veteran deaths. In addition they parroted thinly sourced claims from right-wing lawmakers, together with that VA misdeeds had been accountable for 1,000 veteran deaths. (Even when this had been true, research have estimated that as many as 250,000 Individuals — and possibly much more —die yearly because of preventable medical errors. Deaths from preventable medical errors are the third main explanation for demise within the U.S.)
The implication of CNN’s story went unsaid however was clear: Obama had veterans’ blood on his palms. It was rapidly picked up by retailers throughout the political spectrum from Fox Information to The Each day Present. Quickly sufficient, the right-wing outrage machine — then piloted by savvy Tea Partiers — revved into excessive gear. The Koch-backed group Involved Veterans of America (CVA) launched an aggressive marketing campaign towards Obama, starting with a protest in Phoenix that drew 150 folks. In brief order, lawmakers referred to as hearings and pointed fingers squarely at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Amid all this noise, CNN patted itself fairly vigorously on the again. “The criticism of CNN is foolish, in regards to the planes,” one CNN producer argued to Politico. “The truth is we will stroll and chew gum on the similar time, we will do the airplane, we will additionally do [VA reporting] and do each exceedingly effectively.”
Because the scandal hit its boiling level, Obama deployed his camera-shy chief of employees, Denis McDonough, for an interview in enemy territory. McDonough went toe-to-toe with Jake Tapper, a long-time champion of vets who was clearly pissed off through the dialogue. At one level, Tapper sarcastically requested McDonough “what number of lifeless veterans” had been required to ensure that Obama to take motion.
Tapper extra credibly contended that Obama had repeatedly “ignored” warning indicators and dismissed calls to reenforce the VA. (U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Patty Murray, amongst others, had lengthy warned of accelerating pressure on the VA system and put forth good legislative proposals to repair the issue.)
McDonough appeared nervous through the interview, and he generally struggled to get out his phrases. But he confirmed flashes of fierceness and successfully refuted Tapper’s extra bogus fees. He provided a robust protection of then-VA Secretary Shinseki, who was beneath heavy fireplace and labored to correctly contextualize the state of affairs. McDonough famous, as an example, that Shinseki had secured large VA budgets, shrunk the large claims backlog, and expanded the G.I. Invoice. He additionally made two key factors:
1.) Wait instances had been lengthy because of Shinseki’s not too long ago hailed determination to open up VA care for a lot extra veterans.
2.) The books had been being cooked in response to then-VA Beneath Secretary for Well being Robert Petzel’s wildly unrealistic metric that each veteran be seen inside 14 days of contacting the VA.
Unsaid by McDonough on this interview had been different crucial information, together with that the VA’s wait instances have lengthy been comparable (and infrequently higher) than the personal sector. He additionally ought to have identified that the VA usually outperforms the personal sector on high quality metrics.
“We’re not going to get entangled in any political video games,” McDonough promised Tapper at one level. “We’re going to get the job achieved.”
But over the next weeks, Democrats had been bullied into ditching Shinseki and supporting a completely dysfunctional privatization regulation: the VA Selection Act. It threw simply $5 billion on the root of the issue: employees shortages. A whopping $10 billion went into outsourcing care to the personal sector. Ultimately, doubtful contractors obtained wealthy, veterans confronted new issues, and the VA — lengthy one of the crucial fashionable and progressive businesses in American authorities — noticed its standing completely sink.
The left additionally took an enormous political hit. In November 2014, Democrats misplaced the Senate, largely because of political assaults in regards to the VA constituted of the best. One of many candidates who most efficiently weaponized the Phoenix scandal was then-U.S. Consultant Tom Cotton, who received an Arkansas Senate Seat after accusing his opponent, incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor, of providing “silence” in response to the lengthy wait-times.
On Wedensday, McDonough will once more face the warmth in affirmation hearings to be President Joe Biden’s VA Secretary. Ought to he safe the position, he’ll face a division deeply broken following six years of direct assaults. Probably the most crucial questions as he gears up for the job revolve round what he discovered from the previous and the way he’ll reply to inevitable efforts by Republicans to once more squeeze scandal out of the VA.
Both he’ll buckle and once more make concessions to the best in hopes of squelching their smears, or he’ll push again on these assaults, shield the division, and powerfully show that the VA is authorities at its greatest.
McDonough can be solely the second civilian to run the VA. His non-military background initially irritated some veterans’ advocates, although many have since warmed to the soon-to-be secretary. A notable holdout is Paul Rieckhoff, the blustery founding father of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), who referred to as McDonough a “wildly out-of-touch alternative.”
What Rieckhoff doesn’t perceive is that one’s veteran standing doesn’t mechanically confer loyalty to those that’ve served. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, in any case, labored to discredit a fellow Navy veteran after she was sexually assaulted on the Washington D.C. VA. Wilkie has additionally defended the Confederacy, improperly dosed VA sufferers with hydroxychloroquine, and enacted Trump’s merciless ban on transgender service members.
McDonough’s document is way from good, and his lack of expertise working a big well being system or authorities company is trigger for concern. However he’s confirmed past a doubt that he cares for individuals who’ve served.
His grandfather served within the Marines and his spouse, Kari, is co-founder and president of Vets Group Connections, a San Diego-based non-profit that provides transitional help to veteran and navy households. In a current op-ed, McDonough relayed these particulars and in addition wrote fondly of his Excessive College soccer coach, Joe Samuelson, an early mentor who additionally stormed the seashores of Normandy. “When he was in hospice on the finish of his life, he and his household had been grateful for the compassion of VA employees,” McDonough wrote. “When he handed, his spouse gave me his teaching jacket — one in all my most prized possessions.”
McDonough additionally is aware of higher than most that the job of VA Secretary will entail fixed migraine-inducing scrutiny. His willingness to confront these circumstances is, in itself, proof of his dedication to the trigger. (Rumor has it that the proper candidate for the job — Tammy Duckworth — knew the position of VA Secretary would damage her political prospects and bowed out. My guess is Pete Buttigieg did the identical.)
McDonough’s dedication to veterans additionally seems to be a type of penance for his pivotal position in launching the Ceaselessly Wars.
Hours after the Twin Towers fell, McDonough referred to as the White Home on behalf of his then-boss, Senate Majority Chief Tom Daschle, and requested what he may do to assist. McDonough subsequently shepherded alongside the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Power Towards Terrorists, which gave President George W. Bush the authorized energy to launch the warfare in Afghanistan. He additionally performed a key position in drafting the 2002 Senate decision authorizing the Iraq invasion. Per quite a few sources, together with The Gatekeepers: How the White Home Chiefs of Employees Outline Each Presidency, McDonough’s swift motion to allow Bush’s warmongering has lengthy haunted him.
By 2004, Daschle had additionally turn into plagued by this work, serving as one of many earliest and most outspoken Congressional skeptics of the warfare. That yr, he grew to become the primary Senate chief in half a century to be voted out of workplace after dealing with assaults that he didn’t help the troops.
By 2007, when McDonough grew to become then-Senator Obama’s overseas coverage advisor, he appeared against the Struggle in Iraq. Although he was absolutely additionally conscious that such opposition, if messaged incorrectly, may end in political failure.
After Obama received his historic 2008 election for president, largely on the daring if ill-defined promise of pulling out of the Center East, McDonough landed a seat on the Nationwide Safety Council. On this position, he made a degree of visiting Iraq and Afghanistan usually to listen to from the troops.
There’s not an entire lot of nice reporting on McDonough’s detailed overseas coverage worldview. But it surely’s clear that he and Obama shared a thoughts meld, so it appears truthful to attach the previous president’s deeply blended warfare document to McDonough.
In January 2013, McDonough grew to become Obama’s chief of employees, the place he earned the fame as a “fixer.” An enormous downside got here within the 2014 Phoenix scandal, which, as acknowledged above, noticed lawmakers overtly casting Obama as an enemy of veterans and the VA as an company damaged past restore. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Koch-backed Republican from Kansas who right now chairs the Senate’s Veteran Affairs Committee, was one of the crucial bellicose on this rhetoric, claiming, as an example, that the VA was beset by a “bureaucratic tradition of mediocrity.”
Shortly after McDonough took Tapper’s slings and arrows, he dispatched his deputy, Rob Nabors, to the VA to determine what went mistaken. Nabors didn’t appear to know a lot in regards to the VA when he entered it. This naiveté, blended with the boiling disaster, turned Nabors right into a hammer who noticed every little thing as a nail. “He was not a present to the VA,” one former company official advised me.
Shortly after touching down, Nabors issued a report alleging that the VA was wracked by a “corrosive tradition.” It made further accusations, some extra professional than others, and provided some first rate suggestions, mainly that the VA wanted to rent and practice further docs, nurses, and different scientific employees to lower wait instances. But this important suggestion was all however ignored. “Nabors’ report was superficial and meant to make the issue go away,” mentioned a former senior VA official, who extra broadly described Obama’s post-Phoenix strikes as “eye wash.”
Along with commissioning the Nabors report, the White Home additionally pushed out numerous senior VA officers to present the impression of a shakeup. Sadly, lots of these let go would have confirmed crucial allies in enhancing the VA.
The primary head to roll was Shinseki, who had loved a sterling fame amongst lawmakers and veterans’ teams up till CNN aired their report. Bob Jesse, an excellent physician and the Principal Deputy Undersecretary for Well being was additionally unceremoniously pushed out. This transfer drastically wounded Jesse, a 30-year worker of the division. (After Jesse died from most cancers in 2017, somebody at his funeral honored his request and skim the Rudyard Kipling poem “If,” which begins: “If you happen to can maintain your head when all about you’re shedding theirs and blaming it on you…”)
Shinseki was changed by Bob McDonald, an Military veteran and long-time CEO of Proctor & Gamble. McDonald introduced on Nabors to be his Chief of Employees, changing Joe Riojas, who was additionally extremely revered contained in the VA.
McDonald took a number of warmth and wasn’t capable of repair many underlying points, partially as a result of Congress’ curiosity in veterans points didn’t embody allocating wanted funds to rent extra in-house employees. McDonald managed to make actual headway in lowering veterans homelessness. He additionally did good work to rehabilitate the company’s picture as a welcoming place, most famously by giving out his cellphone quantity to vets in disaster.
Probably the most consequential reform from Phoenix was the VA Selection Act, which McDonough shepherded by way of Congress. The scope of the invoice had been hotly contested between the chairmen of the Home and Senate VA committees: a right-winger named Jeff Miller and Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist. Miller wished to outsource care to the personal sector and make it simpler to fireplace staff. Sanders wished to maintain job protections in place and rent extra docs and different employees.
Ultimately, Miller received, largely as a result of he ran a extremely efficient messaging effort on Capitol Hill and within the media, which amplified the Koch’s narrative of a VA damaged past restore. (Sanders, for his half, had no devoted press employees and obtained little assist from the White Home.)
Whereas Obama had by no means rigorously defended the VA’s many successes, on August 7, 2014, the president excitedly signed Selection, telling an viewers of veterans’ advocates that “so long as I maintain this workplace, we’re going to spend each day working to do proper by you and your households.” Selection went on to create huge complications for the VA and veteran sufferers, all of the whereas outsourcings tens of thousands and thousands of appointments to the personal sector. (Whereas Sanders secured just a few billion within the regulation to carry on extra medical employees, an NPR investigation later discovered the VA bungled these hiring efforts.)
In ratifying Selection, Obama put the nail within the coffin of the punishing Phoenix information cycle. But simply two weeks after he signed Selection, a report from the VA’s Workplace of Inspector Common fully undermined the important thing declare of your entire scandal. “We’re unable to conclusively assert that the absence of well timed high quality care induced the deaths of those veterans,” the watchdog concluded.
On paper, McDonough is an uncontroversial choose to steer the VA. He had zero doubtful investments when he entered Obama’s White Home, and he didn’t promote out after leaving it. As a substitute, he taught at Notre Dame and have become a senior principal contained in the comparatively benign Markle Basis.
I’m unsure of his present funding portfolio, however I doubt he’ll face warmth until he’s actively invested in corporations making the most of VA privatization. I additionally doubt Senate Democrats will criticize him throughout his affirmation hearings for his work passing Selection or on every other matter. McDonough might, nonetheless, face barbs from some Republicans over his alleged involvement in Obama-era efforts to spy on Trump’s 2016 marketing campaign.
As he approaches these hearings, McDonough is clearly working arduous to curry favor with veterans’ service organizations within the hope that they’ll endorse his bid and clean his path to VA headquarters. To date, he’s earned respect from a various array of advocates, together with Joe Chenelly, the Govt Director of AMVETS, who was initially fairly skeptical.
“He’s placing in a number of effort to convey the message that he understands our considerations, and he’s going to work his butt off to reply these considerations,” Chenelly advised me. “He’s not asking us to belief him proper off the bat. He’s pledged to earn that.”
McDonough has to this point been mum on his particular coverage priorities. Among the many main unanswered questions I’ve are: Will McDonough use his energy as Secretary to reel again the outsourcing blitz made doable by the 2018 VA Mission Act? Does he plan to reinstate union rights revoked beneath Trump? Will he once more permit the American Legion and different teams to evaluate and help with veterans’ incapacity claims?
McDonough faces a plethora of main challenges on the horizon, together with a backlog of pending VA retaliation instances contained in the Benefit Techniques Protections Board that Republicans may simply weaponize to denigrate the division. “The defendant on all of the pending retaliation claims goes to vary from ‘Robert Wilkie’ to ‘Denis McDonough,’” one former VA official mirrored. “That’s not a enjoyable place for Group Biden to be in. It’s going to be a blood bathtub.”
Perhaps McDonough can swiftly use his disaster administration abilities to skillfully evade blame for this mess and others Trump has left him. However perhaps not. “I don’t know that he totally appreciates what he’s entering into,” this former VA official mentioned.
McDonough is little question whip-smart and approaches issues with the identical extremely analytical strategy as Obama. But, he’s usually described as cautious, believing not in progressive management however “incrementalism.” “I see McDonough as a VA secretary chosen to implement self-discipline and maintain a lid on issues,” one supply advised me. “He’s risk-averse, he prefers hierarchical management. That doesn’t create a constructive, transformational setting.”
One other supply famous that “he appears extra of an Inexpensive Care Act man than a Medicare for All man, and positively received’t see the VA as a mannequin for a future all-payer, all supplier Nationwide Well being Service-like group.”
McDonough might not totally be on board with common care, however, prefer it or not, he’ll quickly be working a socialized system. The VA is a progressive company, and it have to be run like one. If McDonough declines to push this technique ahead meaningfully or continues to welcome within the personal sector to cannibalize its price range, he won’t solely damage its standing amongst veterans but additionally do an actual disservice to the rising momentum for Medicare for All.
One concrete pledge McDonough has made is to herald different businesses to complement the VA’s work of helping veterans. However he should additionally understand that different businesses can be taught from the VA, a reality exemplified by one other Obama scandal McDonough was tied up in the 2013 Obamacare web site debacle.
“The Veterans Well being Administration has successfully established huge well being networks throughout the nation and lengthy handled fee-for-care suppliers, but none of that experience was dropped at bear by the Obama administration behind the scenes,” one supply recalled of the bungled rollout. “That stands in stark distinction with George W. Bush, who, in his growth of Medicare Half D, appeared for experience in lots of different departments, together with the VA, which he introduced in for its many consultative advantages.”