Why The Fuck Is Spider-Man's Boss Running Veterans Affairs?
Donald Trump is a guy with a dream. A dream of running the US government like a business. And if that means letting one of his close personal friends secretly run the Department of Veterans Affairs, the nation's second-largest government agency, without any oversight or accountability, well then that's the sort of fresh thinking the American People clearly wanted, right? ProPublica brings us an incredible investigation into how Trump pal Ike Perlmutter, the chairman of Marvel Entertainment, quietly became the real boss of the VA in the guise of "volunteering" to help make the agency run gooder. Even with all we already know about Trump's casual disregard for ethics and norms, this one leaves us, as St. Molly Ivins would say, whomperjawed.
The investigation by Isaac Arnsdorf leaves little doubt that Perlmutter and two friends are the de facto brains of the VA, even though they've never held a government job -- and, for that matter, aren't US military veterans. Trump apparently asked Perlmutter to help him make a government happen, because that's how Trump does things, and Perlmutter picked Veterans Affairs, because before he came to the US and became a citizen, he'd served in the Israeli army and fought in the 1967 war. That and running a bajillion-dollar entertainment company is all you need to be one of the Best People.
Perlmutter recruited a couple other rich pals, Bruce Moskowitz, a Palm Beach doctor, and a lawyer named Marc Sherman, to help him make a whole cabinet department great again. They're all members of Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort, so they quickly became known as the "Mar-a-Lago Crowd," and while officially they're just friends of the "president," a trove of documents obtained through FOIA requests shows they have real clout when it comes to setting policy and even staffing at the VA. This is one of those pieces you have to read in full to believe; be aware that you'll likely have to pause every other paragraph for some choice oaths, ranging from the commonplace "Oh My God" to variations on "Jesus Fucking Shitballs!" or "By Odin's purloined testicles!"* along with inarticulate howls of rage for which no known deity can be invoked.
Mind you, Perlmutter, Moskowitz, and Sherman aren't copping to anything untoward, because of course they aren't. The three refused to be interviewed, but did take some questions and release a group statement through a "crisis-communications consultant." Everything here is perfectly normal and legal, because, you see, they're not getting paid!
In a statement, they downplayed their influence, insisting that nobody is obligated to act on their counsel. "At all times, we offered our help and advice on a voluntary basis, seeking nothing at all in return," they said. "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… 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 only want to help. Is wanting to help a crime now? Anyone would want help when they're moving from starring in a shitty reality show to running a whole country into the ground, wouldn't they? Unfortunately, all that free advice left a hell of a paper trail, too:
The Mar-a-Lago Crowd spoke with VA officials daily, the documents show, reviewing all manner of policy and personnel decisions. They prodded the VA to start new programs, and officials travelled to Mar-a-Lago at taxpayer expense to hear their views. "Everyone has to go down and kiss the ring," a former administration official said.
And since the guy who rides Air Force one down to Florida every other weekend checks in and loves their help, mere bureaucrats listen when they talk, even if they have no idea how government agencies work. Mere VA officials who failed to tell them what nice two-headed gophers they created have been wished into the cornfield (or merely reassigned), including former VA Secretary David Shulkin, who for sure had his own ethical problems, but they were nothing compared to others who lasted longer. The body count among foes of the Trepanning Troika is impressive. Besides Shulkin, those "pushed out or passed over" include the VA's
deputy secretary, chief of staff, acting under secretary for health, deputy under secretary for health, chief information officer, and the director of electronic health records modernization.
Oh, and the bosses from the shadow dimension also have their own little pet projects which happen to coincide awfully well with their own business interests or just professional hobby horses, too, although of course they've taken no money directly from the government. Just happy to serve!
It's a cookbook. Or cooked books.
Not surprisingly, the three really like the idea of privatizing medical care for veterans, because government is always inefficient and difficult to profit from. Perlmutter had initially suggested Shulkin to Trump as VA secretary, and so Shulkin went down to Florida for an interview. Moskowitz generously emailed him to let him know, "We do not need to meet in person monthly, but meet face to face only when necessary," so phone conferences would be fine. But then Shulkin seemed not to love some of their plans for privatization, and chafed against some of the political people appointed to the VA, and he was out, and eventually replaced by Pentagon official Robert Wilkie -- at least, after the Ronny Jackson debacle, which apparently was all Trump's Very Own Idea, which is what you get without the informal brain trust. Wilkie and VA chief of staff Peter O'Rourke were appropriately deferential to the Mar-a-Lago Crowd, so they were allowed to oversee the agency.
Look, go read the whole thing. You have stuff like Moskowitz's son helping to "advise" Apple on developing an app to help vets find private doctors, because he's a nice boy who knows computers. Perfectly OK, because no money changed hands. A pet project to build a database tracking medical device recalls, which happened to be something Moskowitz's now-shuttered family foundation was working on. An incredibly pissy internal memo from a Trump political appointee to a guy who served "as Perlmutter's eyes and ears within the agency," recommending big personnel changes to make the VA friendlier to Trump's agenda, and lo, it became so.
We liked this one: a suicide-prevention program for veterans that, when it was finally rolled out just in time for Veterans Day, ended up featuring Marvel executives ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, with actors in costume as Captain America and Spider-Man.
Plus some dumb stuff, like Perlmutter pressing Shulkin to help access the service records of a young veteran, the son of a woman who manages the tennis courts at the gated community where Perlmutter lives. Perlmutter was VERY CONCERNED, and emailed Shulkin to call his attention to "another real-life example of the issues our great veterans are suffering with when trying to work with the VA." Yes, everyone who knows Donald Trump does start sounding like him.
Shulkin had to get back to Perlmutter to advise him service records are a matter for the Defense Department, not the VA. But through their crisis communications guy, the Three Mar-a-Migos at least had a good story about why that wasn't just Perlmutter trying to get a personal favor:
These were the types of stories of agency dysfunction and individual suffering that drove us to offer our volunteer experience in the first place — veterans who had been left behind by their government. These individual cases helped raise broader issues for government officials in a position to make changes, sometimes leading to assistance for one veteran, sometimes to broader reforms within the system.
Yes indeed. And damn it, you'd better salute and play the National Anthem to honor their service to America, son.
* See Mighty Thor #114
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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.