WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump often fabricates accomplishments for himself and at times falsely strips them from others, but a new lie manages both: Claiming credit for a veterans program that his late nemesis Sen. John McCain actually did help create.
“The vets — the VA was in horrible shape. Now, they have choice. And nobody could get choice,” he told ABC News recently. “John McCain couldn’t get it. Nobody could get it. They tried for years. They couldn’t get it. I got choice for the vets.”
In fact, the provision of the law that Trump touts most often — the ability of veterans to get private medical care if VA waitlists were too long — was something that McCain specifically pushed for and eventually won in his negotiations with then-Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
“He has no ethics of any kind,” said Mark Salter, a former speechwriter to McCain, the longtime Republican senator from Arizona who died last year of brain cancer. “Nothing is too outlandish or dishonest.”
On the Senate floor on June 5, 2014, Sanders praised McCain for sticking by his principles and pushing the private doctor “choice” element even though Sanders disagreed with it. McCain responded: “We were able to come together I believe in a way that will help relieve this terrible tragedy that seems to have befallen our nation’s veterans.”
Following the compromise struck by McCain and Sanders, the legislation passed both chambers and on Aug. 7, 2014, was signed into law by then-President Barack Obama — notwithstanding Trump’s repeated false claims that the “VA choice” law was something that he himself achieved.
“They have trying to get it passed for 44 years. We got it passed,” he told a rally audience in Panama City, Florida, last month.
“We passed VA choice,” he repeated to an Orlando audience on Tuesday. “You go out now, you get a doctor, you fix yourself up, the doctor sends us the bill, we pay for it and you know what? It doesn’t matter because the life and the veteran is more important.”
The White House declined to comment on Trump’s falsehoods on this topic, and would not say whether Trump was knowingly lying or simply did not know the facts.
For him the truth is no better than a lie, and if it doesn’t serve his ego when a lie will, then the lie is preferable to the truth.
Former McCain speechwriter Mark Salter
“For him the truth is no better than a lie, and if it doesn’t serve his ego when a lie will, then the lie is preferable to the truth,” Salter said. “That’s his only value: Does it serve his ego or not.”
Trump did sign into law the “VA Mission Act” last year, which extended the 2014 law and eased the eligibility requirements. But Trump has never made that claim. Instead, in speech after speech, interview after interview, he has falsely taken credit for the original law, telling his audience that prior to him, veterans who faced extended delays at their Veterans Affairs clinic or hospital simply had to suffer.
Trump allies in Congress acknowledged that McCain was instrumental in passing the 2014 law but pointed out that it was due to “sunset” last year. “Under President Trump’s leadership we were able to create a permanent program to give veterans greater choice last year,” a Republican aide in the House Veterans Affairs Committee said on condition of anonymity.
Trump, while he has been falsely taking credit for having created the “choice” program since last summer, did not explicitly make the equally false claim that McCain failed to pass such a law until last week’s ABC News interview.
His animosity toward McCain, though, began at least four years ago after McCain said Trump was “firing up the crazies” in his outreach to an “extreme element within our Republican party.” Trump, a few days later at a campaign event in Iowa with religious conservatives, disparaged McCain’s status as a Vietnam War hero. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured,” Trump said. “I don’t like losers.”
McCain was a Navy pilot who was shot down and held captive and tortured for five and a half years in Hanoi as a prisoner of war. Trump, in contrast, claimed he had “bone spurs” in his heels and received a medical deferment. Years later, he told a radio host that he considered avoiding sexually transmitted diseases in those years his own “personal Vietnam” because of all the different women he was sleeping with.
After the Oct. 7, 2016, release of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump is heard describing how his celebrity allowed him to grab women by the genitals, McCain was among a sizable number of Republican office holders who withdrew their endorsement of his presidential candidacy. And in 2017, McCain cast the deciding “no” vote in the Senate blocking repeal of Obama’s Affordable Care Act — a vote Trump has been attacking McCain for even after his death.
In a speech at an Ohio tank factory this March, Trump told the audience that he was also angry with McCain for his role in passing along to the FBI a “dossier” of information compiled by a former British intelligence officer regarding Trump and his campaign’s ties to Russia in late 2016.
“John McCain received a fake and phony dossier. Did you hear about the dossier? It was paid for by Crooked Hillary Clinton. Right?” Trump said as the audience booed McCain. “And John McCain got it. He got it. And what did he do? He didn’t call me. He turned it over to the FBI, hoping to put me in jeopardy. And that’s not the nicest thing to do.”
Trump, his White House staff and his allies in and out of Congress have been actively trying to discredit the former British officer, Christopher Steele, as well as special counsel Robert Mueller’s report that detailed Russia’s efforts to help Trump win the election as well as numerous instances where Trump tried to shut down Mueller’s probe.
Steele had previously helped the FBI break open the FIFA bribery scandal. His Trump work was for an opposition research firm originally hired by an anti-Trump GOP donor, but which found a new client in Democratic nominee Clinton’s campaign after Trump secured the GOP nomination.