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Veterans say Trump fundraiser uses them as ‘political props’

This combination made from Aug. 6, 2015, photos shows Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Fox News Channel host and moderator Megyn Kelly during the first GOP presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena, in Cleveland. Trump, who has called Kelly a “lightweight” and biased, said at an Iowa news conference Wednesday night that he would be holding a fundraising event in Iowa at the same time as Thursday’s GOP debate to benefit veterans and wounded soldiers.
This combination made from Aug. 6, 2015, photos shows Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Fox News Channel host and moderator Megyn Kelly during the first GOP presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena, in Cleveland. Trump, who has called Kelly a “lightweight” and biased, said at an Iowa news conference Wednesday night that he would be holding a fundraising event in Iowa at the same time as Thursday’s GOP debate to benefit veterans and wounded soldiers. AP

Several leading veterans activists and supporters denounced Donald Trump’s hastily arranged fundraiser for veterans in Iowa on Thursday night as a “political ploy.”

“The politicization of veterans’ issues is at an all-time high,” Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in an interview. “We hope all the candidates can focus on veterans policy and veterans issues and not just use veterans as a political prop.”

The fundraiser grew out of Trump’s decision this week to back out of a Fox News-sponsored Republican presidential debate, also Thursday night, because of his pique over the choice of one of the moderators, news anchor Megyn Kelly. The GOP front-runner has criticized Kelly relentlessly, in several demeaning and vulgar ways, since her questioning of him in an earlier debate.

Several groups, including Rieckhoff’s, have pledged to reject any money raised by the Trump event. VoteVets.org, a pro-veterans group with a liberal agenda, said in a statement: “Don’t hide from Megyn Kelly behind us.”

The Trump campaign could not be reached for comment.

Questions have swirled around the fundraiser, set for Des Moines’ Drake University: Which, if any, veterans groups have been involved? How will whatever money is raised be distributed?

On Trump’s website to solicit funds for veterans a disclosure at the bottom indicates that donations go directly to the Donald J. Trump Foundation, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization.

On Trump’s website to solicit funds for veterans – donaldtrumpforvets.com – a disclosure at the bottom indicates that donations go directly to the Donald J. Trump Foundation, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization.

Veterans advocates were skeptical of the sincerity of Trump’s debate-night fundraiser because they said the New York real estate billionaire, along with most of the 2016 candidates, had said little about veterans issues and how to pay for the increasing costs of their care.

“I don’t think he’s come forward with any substantial plans,” Garry Augustine, executive director of the Disabled American Veterans, said in an interview. “I just hope it’s something good for veterans and not just politics.”

The Iowa state offices of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion were among several veterans service groups that said the Trump campaign had not reached out to them about the event. Jerry Black of the Iowa VFW called that strange, given that the Trump event is in their backyard.

Linda Bilmes, a lecturer at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and an expert on the budget of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said in an email that the long-term cost to care for just Iraq and Afghanistan veterans “exceeds $1 trillion. If Trump wants to address this issue, he should develop a serious plan to fund this promise – instead of using America’s vets as a political ploy.”

If Trump wants to address this issue, he should develop a serious plan to fund this promise – instead of using America’s vets as a political ploy.

Linda Bilmes, a lecturer at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and an expert on the budget of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Trump’s involvement with veterans has been rocky. At an Iowa event last summer, he said of Arizona Sen. John McCain, the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam war: “He’s not a war hero.” Then backtracking, “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, OK?”

Trump also gave a speech last September aboard a decommissioned battleship sponsored by a group called Veterans for a Strong America. Questions arose that the group’s claims about the size of its membership were inflated. It also lost its federal tax-exempt status.

During Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Trump earlier this month, veterans advocates took umbrage at Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee. With Trump onstage with her, she appeared to blame President Barack Obama for a lack of mental health treatment for veterans, linking that to the recent arrest of her son, an Iraq War veteran, on domestic violence charges.

Michael Doyle contributed to this article.

David Goldstein: 202-383-6105, @GoldsteinDavidJ

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