The first time President Trump claimed false credit for the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act — which President Barack Obama signed into law in 2014 — was on June 6, 2018. That day, as Trump signed the Mission Act, a modest update to the bipartisan VA Choice legislation, he seemed to conflate the two.
“So it’s now my great honor to sign the VA Mission Act, or as we all know it, the Choice Act, and to make Veterans Choice the permanent law of our great country,” the president said, standing in the Rose Garden. “And nobody deserves it more than our veterans.”
In the coming weeks, Trump began systematically erasing from the legislation’s history not just Obama but also the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who not only co-sponsored the VA Choice Act but also was so instrumental in passing the Mission Act that he is one of three senators for whom the act is officially named.
That didn’t stop Trump from falsely claiming — as he did at a tank factory in Lima, Ohio, in March 2019 — that McCain, his frequent political rival, failed to make any progress on the VA Choice Act.
“McCain didn’t get the job done for our great vets and the VA, and they knew it,” Trump said.
More than two years after signing the Mission Act, which made limited changes to the much broader Obama veterans law, Trump has repeated some version of his VA Choice Act mistruth more than 156 times, according to an analysis by The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, eventually claiming full credit for the bill codified by his predecessor.
“We’ve got Choice approved,” Trump told a Fox-affiliate reporter in Michigan in January. “I mean, nobody thought we could possibly get Choice approved. We have Veterans Choice approved.”
And, with that, Trump’s alternative history was complete.
Elevating himself, diminishing others
Nearly four years into the presidency, Trump has made more than 22,000 false or misleading claims, according to The Post’s Fact Checker — falsehoods that go well beyond mere political exaggeration. He has obfuscated, he has deceived, and he has spun. Trump’s mendacity has become a hallmark of his presidency.
The president’s handling of the VA Choice legislation offers a crystalline window into the anatomy of a Trump lie: the initial false claim, the subsequent embellishment and gilding, the incessant repetition and the clear evidence that he knows the truth but chooses to keep telling the falsehood — all enabled by aides either unwilling or unable to rein him in.
“A lot of the problem with the president is he’s just using the wrong words,” said Jeremy Butler, the CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonpartisan veterans advocacy and support group. “He’s calling it ‘Choice,’ when he means the Mission Act, but to the average listener, the Mission Act doesn’t mean anything, but ‘Choice’ does.”
Butler said Trump’s inaccurate language also undermines his efforts on improving veteran care: “The real question is: Is this legislation working? Is it doing what it needs to be doing? But it’s hard not to get sucked into misstatements and mistruths and half-truths, whether it’s intentional or not.”
Trump has used the VA Choice assertion in part to create a false sense of accomplishment and to elevate himself while diminishing McCain and Obama.
As Trump repeated the mistruth, he grew bolder, claiming falsely that the legislation had, as he said at one 2018 event, “eluded us for 40 years? 50 years?” He also downplayed McCain’s role, using the legislation as a cudgel to attack the former Vietnam prisoner of war and diminish his contributions.
“I disagree with John McCain on the way he handled the vets, because I said, ‘You got to get to Choice,’ ” Trump said as he departed for Marine One in May 2019. “He was never able to get Choice. I got Choice.”
His rhetoric also had the benefit of minimizing the role of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a co-sponsor of VA Choice with McCain and a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 and 2020.
Research shows that Trump’s repetition of a false claim may help cement it as appearing to be true, at least to the casual observer, said Daniel A. Effron, a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School who studies the psychology of lies.
“If you repeatedly hear the same false claim and you don’t know whether it’s true or not, you might guess that it’s true,” Effron said. “If you tell people the same falsehood a number of times, people will start to believe it.”
TJ Ducklo, a spokesman for former vice president Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, said Trump’s deception on VA Choice is indicative of the president’s problematic behavior more generally.
“All he cares about is his own political future,” Ducklo said. “Donald Trump doesn’t actually care about veterans and military families — he uses VA Choice as a political talking point to help himself.”
‘Actual, permanent choice’
White House officials and allies of the president say that when Trump talks about VA Choice, he is not actually referring to the bill Obama signed but to the general concept of providing veterans with more choice when it comes to their health care — not unlike school choice.
The VA Choice bill largely sprang up in response to a massive Veterans Affairs scandal in 2014, in which scheduling staff at VA hospitals across the country had been instructed to falsify their waiting lists to cover up the long waits for even basic care. The problem was especially pronounced at one VA medical center in Phoenix. According to an interim independent report by VA’s inspector general, officials at the Phoenix hospital falsified records, and veterans waited 115 days on average for an initial primary care appointment. Some died while waiting.
Most stakeholders agree that VA Choice — a bipartisan compromise that expanded veterans’ ability to go to private doctors — was a flawed if well-intentioned program that required an update and expansion at some point. And in June 2018, Trump signed just that in the form of the Mission Act.
The newer legislation makes it easier for veterans to seek private care and offers improvements such as allowing veterans to see non-VA doctors for primary care if their drive to a VA facility is more than 30 minutes, rather than 40 miles, or if their wait for an appointment is more than 20 days, rather than 30. According to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, an additional 640,000 veterans each year will seek care outside the VA system, and the legislation requires VA to negotiate a contract for veterans to seek care at private walk-in clinics.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement that Trump’s improvements to the VA system go well beyond what Obama accomplished during his two terms.
“After finding in 2015 that as many as 307,000 veterans could have died waiting for care on Obama and Biden’s watch, another 2017 VA Inspector General report found that President Obama created ‘several barriers’ to veterans receiving outside care,” McEnany wrote. “President Trump fixed Obama’s broken VA and offered actual, permanent choice to millions of veterans.”
McEnany was citing a statistic that was fact-checked as false when Trump first started using it in 2015. The number is derived from a database that predates the Obama administration, and there is no evidence that so many veterans died waiting for care.
Privately, Trump aides and veterans groups had mixed reactions to the way Trump has talked about the veterans legislation. At least one White House staffer raised the issue several times, said a former administration official, recognizing that, at the very least, Trump’s false claims would cause fact-checking problems for the administration.
But the president and his speechwriters were wedded to the language of “VA Choice,” the language of the Obama-era bill, in part because they believed the public didn’t know what exactly the Mission Act meant and felt “choice” was a more appealing term, according to this official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private discussions.
Others in Trump’s orbit said that using the Obama law’s name accurately conveyed the spirit of both bills and Trump’s ultimate goal — offering veterans more choice and options when it came to their health care.
For some Republicans, Trump’s co-opting of VA Choice was so thorough that they didn’t realize the initial legislation had been signed into law under Obama.
During the Republican National Convention in August, several speakers said, unprompted, they wanted to mention VA Choice in their remarks because they believed it was a “big deal” and an area where Trump had done “a great job,” said one administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal discussions.
Trump himself mentioned the topic during his acceptance speech in Charlotte, saying, “We also passed VA Accountability and VA Choice.” The first reference pertains to a 2017 accountability law that made it easier for VA to fire employees for misconduct.
“Our great veterans,” Trump continued, “we’re taking care of our veterans.”
‘Down a rabbit role’
Butler said he’s not sure why Trump continues to claim credit for VA Choice, but he and his team “learned pretty quickly that it’s not worth the time or effort to focus on that part of the discussion.”
“If you’re going to focus the little bit of time that we get to interact with the VA, or even less time we get to spend with the White House, if we’re going to spend that little bit of time trying to split hairs, trying to say, ‘Well, Obama passed VA Choice, and then you passed the Mission Act,’ you’re really going down a rabbit hole,” Butler said.
If anything frustrates some veterans, Butler added, it is how Trump talks about the importance of respecting and honoring veterans, “but then does seem to have this ongoing personal feud with the memory of Sen. McCain.”
The animosity is so pronounced that, last month, Cindy McCain, the senator’s widow, endorsed Biden — an expression of support that came as Trump was speaking at a rally in Moon Township, Pa., where he again claimed sole credit for the VA Choice legislation shepherded by McCain and passed under Obama.
Robert McDonald, Obama’s VA secretary when he signed VA Choice, said he ultimately only cares that veterans receive the quality medical care they deserve.
“My point of view is simple: I don’t care who gets credit,” said McDonald, a fellow at the George W. Bush Presidential Center and a member of the Biden campaign’s transition team. “Our job was to improve outcomes for veterans. That was our job.”
Others, however, view Trump’s rhetoric as more problematic. Will Goodwin, director of government relations for VoteVets, a liberal political action committee that supports veteran candidates and mobilizes the veteran vote, said he believes the president is “actively lying and doesn’t care” and that such an approach toward veterans issues is emblematic of bigger challenges.
“Delivering for veterans requires constant attention from the White House on both the legislative front and how the department operates, and if the president can’t even remember the name of the largest VA legislation to pass in the last decade, how can he possibly be a competent administrator of the VA?” Goodwin said. “That’s kind of the crux of the problem with this.”
Dan Pfeiffer, who served as a senior adviser to Obama when the VA Choice law was passed, said the sheer pointlessness of the false claim makes it all the more galling. “He could just as easily say, ‘I passed the Mission Act,’ and that would be just as politically beneficial,” he said. “Either he likes lying too much to stop lying, or his staff is too afraid to tell him he’s wrong so he keeps on perpetuating this falsehood.”
Dan Caldwell, a senior adviser for Concerned Veterans for America — a veterans advocacy group that is part of the conservative Koch political network — offered a different perspective, saying that one of Trump’s key 2016 campaign promises was giving veterans more choice, which Trump ultimately delivered.
“As implemented, the Obama administration law didn’t give veterans true choice,” Caldwell said. “The president deserves a lot of credit for making progress on this issue.”
He suggested the current progress on providing veterans with more health-care options is really an outgrowth of an inadvertently “strong synergy” between Trump and John McCain.
“Bizarrely, had you not had Sen. McCain being such a strong advocate for it, and if you had not had President Trump being such a strong advocate for it, you likely would not have the Veterans Choice we’re seeing now,” Caldwell said. “President Trump deserves significant credit for Veterans Choice, and so does Sen. McCain, and it doesn’t make sense to argue over who deserves more credit because without either one, you wouldn’t have the Veterans Choice we have now.”
For all his attempts to usurp credit for VA Choice, Trump continues to trail Biden in most polls when it comes to the military, as well as his overall trustworthiness.
An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll from September found that 47 percent of U.S. adults said Biden would do a better job on supporting and respecting the military and veterans, compared with 42 percent who said Trump would perform better. A July Quinnipiac poll found 51 percent of voters disapproving of how Trump handled the military and 41 percent approving — a low point in his approval rating on the military in the Quinnipiac poll, which had him more evenly divided in early 2019.
A May 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that 42 percent of Americans trusted Trump “a great deal” or “a fair amount” to make the right decisions about the use of military force, while a 56 percent majority said they trusted him “not much” or “not at all.” The same Pew survey, however, also found that 58 percent of veterans said they trusted Trump to make the right decisions about the use of military force.
Meanwhile, voters have penalized Trump for his litany of mistruths. A September CNN poll asked Americans which of the two candidates was more honest and trustworthy: 53 percent named Biden, and 36 percent said Trump. And in an August Fox News poll that asked about Trump’s honesty, 61 percent of registered voters said Trump was not honest and trustworthy, while 36 percent said he was.
‘It was a joke’
In recent weeks, there have been some efforts to push Trump and his team to modulate their language on VA Choice, even slightly. In response to rigorous fact-checks in the media, aides have at times tweaked the president’s prepared remarks to say “Mission Act” rather than “VA Choice,” a senior administration official said.
Pete Hegseth, a “Fox & Friends” weekend co-host and Army veteran, has pressed the argument on his show and in conversations with Trump that the VA Choice law didn’t offer veterans real choice, but that Trump’s updates to the legislation have done so, according to one person familiar with the private conversations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
In a video Trump shared on Twitter this month, he seemed to echo Hegseth: “For more than 45 years, they were trying to get Choice,” the president said. “Obama gave you a weak version that didn’t work. It was a joke. I gave you the Mission Act, which is phenomenal, and it’s worked out fantastically well.”
Speaking to reporters in early September, the president again criticized McCain but this time was more precise in talking about the veterans legislation.
“The VA is running much better now — and we did with the Mission Act, and the Accountability, and all the things we’ve done for the VA,” Trump said.
Two days later, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union,” where he was pressed by Dana Bash about Trump’s false statements on the topic of VA Choice. “Now, I know President Trump expanded it in 2018,” Bash said, “but why does he insist on repeating that he’s responsible for passing it, when it was President Obama?”
Wilkie called the issue one of “semantics” but also said that the Mission Act ultimately “expands choice to all veterans” — and that “Choice” is catchier to say.
“Choice is much easier to understand than the Mission Act, which was the title that the Congress put on the president’s program, because it’s an acronym that has six or seven different words in it,” Wilkie said. “But what we are talking about is permanent choice, not what the Obama administration, Obama-Biden, foisted on the country.”
Before long, though, Trump resumed falsely boasting that he passed VA Choice. The line has become a staple of recent campaign rallies in front of crowds from Macon, Ga., to Prescott, Ariz.
Speaking in Erie, Pa., two weeks before Election Day, Trump bragged again about the legislation that passed under Obama: “And for our great veterans, we passed VA Choice and VA Accountability,” Trump said.
The falsehood was greeted with cheers from the crowd.
Scott Clement, Emily Guskin, Glenn Kessler, Lisa Rein and Salvador Rizzo contributed to this report.