WASHINGTON — They were called the “Mar-a-Lago Crowd” by people inside the government. A damning exposé dubbed them the “shadow rulers of the VA.”
In the early days of the Trump administration, a trio of businessmen — one of whom was a member of the president’s private Mar-a-Lago club — worked behind the scenes to shape policy at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the $200-billion federal agency that provides healthcare to nearly 9 million vets. As ProPublica and other news organizations documented, Marvel Entertainment Chairman Ike Perlmutter, a doctor in West Palm Beach named Bruce Moskowitz, and a D.C. lawyer named Marc Sherman formed a triumvirate of outside advisers, vetting VA personnel decisions, corresponding with the agency’s leader, and proposing their own ideas for reforming the VA.
Despite having no government experience among them, the Mar-a-Lago Crowd exerted unprecedented clout inside the VA. “The Mar-a-Lago Crowd spoke with VA officials daily,” ProPublica reported, “reviewing all manner of policy and personnel decisions.” On the subject of preventing veteran suicides — an issue of paramount importance with an average of 20 such suicides a day — one anonymous VA official said of the Mar-a-Lago Crowd, “Everything needs to be run by them. They view themselves as making the decisions.”
Now, internal emails obtained by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) reveal a new facet of the Mar-a-Lago Crowd saga: the frustration and anger felt by government employees at having to deal with Trump cronies meddling in the agency’s work. (Perlmutter, Moskowitz, and Sherman did not respond to requests for comment. In response to questions from Sen. Elizabeth Warren about their unofficial roles, they said they “never profited, nor sought to profit” from their “volunteered” work with the VA.)
In a November 2017 email exchange, a senior official and medical doctor fumes about having to respond to questions from someone described as “POTUS friend/doctor” — an apparent reference to Moskowitz. The VA official, Dr. Ashwini Zenooz, writes: “I’d be happy to respond to this but these questions are just ridiculous. They don’t make sense and there is basic [sic] lack of understanding” about relevant issues. “I’m just baffled,” she goes on to write. (According to LinkedIn, Zenooz no longer works at the VA.)
The reply from a VA colleague of Zenooz’s, Scott Blackburn, shows the degree to which VA staff had to take seriously questions from Trump’s friends. He writes that the VA “will need to handle [them] sensitively and with facts.” And in a subsequent email, a third VA employee, John Windom, writes in a reference to the meeting with the president’s friend: “To me the session tomorrow is just a grin and bear it session. I will have my listening hat on 2 hours.”
Perlmutter, Moskowitz, and Sherman reportedly became unofficial VA advisers through personal connections to President Trump. Perlmutter has reportedly known Trump for years and has been a member of Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private club in South Florida where the dues can reach six figures. Moskowitz is described in VA emails as a “friend” of Trump’s, and both he and Sherman helped organize a meeting of health-care executives in December 2016, according to ProPublica.
More email exchanges obtained by CREW show the tightrope VA employees walked when pushing back against the Mar-a-Lago Crowd while not outright dismissing or insulting them. After repeated efforts by the Mar-a-Lago Crowd to weigh in on the VA’s massive project to modernize its electronic health records system, Windom, a leader of the modernization effort, replied with a lengthy message laying out why Marc Sherman of the Mar-a-Lago Crowd, was off-base with his advice to the VA.
“Mr. Sherman does not understand the culture of VA or the federal government,” Windom writes. While the federal government takes an incremental approach to major overhauls, Sherman “appears to be more of a ‘big bang’ theory guy.” Which may make sense with a start-up, but not with a sprawling agency that delivers life-saving care. “The problem is,” Windom writes, “we must continue to deliver uninterrupted and quality care to our Veterans during the transformation within the parameters of the law and other regulations/policies.” Put another way, “move fast and break things” doesn’t work so well when the lives of veterans are at stake.
Noah Bookbinder, executive director of CREW, tells Rolling Stone that the newly obtained emails are “a clear example of individuals who had no government positions or understanding of the issues that they were weighing in on but who nonetheless were taking up the time and resources of government employees.”
Bookbinder says the emails fit into a broader pattern of an ethically-challenged presidency in which outsiders with no connection to government have the ear of the president simply by being dues-paying members of Trump clubs or traveling in the president’s social circles. “You have this pattern of the people who are the president’s paying customers being given the deference and influence that regular Americans don’t have.”