Government & Politics

Trump arrives to address 4,000 veterans at VFW convention

President Trump speaks at VFW convention

President Donald Trump spoke to about 4,000 veterans on Tuesday, July 24, 2018, at the VFW's national convention in Kansas City.
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President Donald Trump spoke to about 4,000 veterans on Tuesday, July 24, 2018, at the VFW's national convention in Kansas City.

President Donald Trump is coming to downtown Kansas City on Tuesday to speak to about 4,000 veterans on the heels of the Senate’s confirmation of his new Veterans Affairs secretary.

Trump was expected to speak at Municipal Auditorium at the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ national convention, which is expected to draw about 10,000 VFW and VFW Auxiliary delegates. The speech was initially planned for the Kansas City Convention Center but later moved to the auditorium.

Hundreds of people signed onto organized protests in the days before Trump’s appearance.

After his remarks to the VFW, Trump is to attend a luncheon fundraiser for Republican Senate candidate Josh Hawley, Missouri’s attorney general.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has been grappling with a shakeup of longtime department leaders and continual staffing problems. To veterans organizations, Trump’s speech presents an opportunity to talk about how he can improve the VA and fight terror abroad.

“That’s what we want to know,” said Joe Davis, director of communications, publications and public affairs for the VFW. “We want to know how are you going to fix the VA and how are you going to take the fight to the enemy.”

Davis noted that it’s been nearly 17 years since the World Trade Center was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, and the U.S. has long been battling terrorism.

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“The high school graduate in 2018 was 1 year old when they flew into the Pentagon and the Twin Towers and the field,” Davis said.

Stability and improvements at the VA are also important to veterans groups. The Washington Post reported in April that the VA had 33,000 vacant jobs, which concerns the American Legion, a fellow veterans organization.

“If the VA is not hiring qualified people to fill these jobs quickly, it’s a problem,” said Joe Plenzler, director of media relations for the American Legion.

The Post also reported that Trump loyalists are purging or reassigning staffers perceived to be disloyal to Trump. More than a dozen high-level civil workers in the VA had been moved to lower-visibility roles, including some Plenzler called talented. Plenzler said he would be watching to see how quickly Trump’s new VA secretary, Robert Wilkie, fills those positions.

“We’ve seen several initiatives stalled over the last four months,” Plenzler said.

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, said he had yet to see the departures become a big problem.

“But as some of the veterans have said to me, look — just because it’s not on the table doesn’t mean it won’t be placed there,” Cleaver said.

Cleaver said he hoped Trump would use the VFW convention as an opportunity to appreciate veterans and bring the nation closer together.

“It’s not a red meat political convention,” Cleaver said. “These are people who are far more responsible for the freedoms we enjoy than any of us on the political stage today, including the president — or any president.”

Both Cleaver and Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, were concerned about the Trump administration pursuing privatization of the VA, though Wilkie has insisted he would not support privatization.

Wilkie is Trump’s third pick to lead the VA. He cleared Senate confirmation on an 86-9 vote Monday afternoon.

McCaskill said in a statement that she had worked to find common ground with the Trump administration to expand benefits for veterans and ensure that World War II veterans exposed to mustard gas get benefits. McCaskill sponsored the Arla Harrell Act to extend VA benefits to those exposed to mustard gas or lewisite during World War II.

“I’ve supported both of the president’s nominees to lead the VA and look forward to working with Secretary Wilkie to ensure the Arla Harrell Act is completely implemented and ensure that growing efforts to privatize the VA, against the wishes of most veterans, aren’t successful,” McCaskill said.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, said Trump and senators worked together to improve the VA through the VA MISSION Act, which allows veterans to seek care outside the VA system to cut down on wait times and increase quality of care. He said he also was happy to see the U.S. Department of Labor move forward with the HIRE Vets program to connect veterans with career opportunities.

“There is still more work that needs to be done,” Blunt said. “I was proud to vote for Robert Wilkie’s confirmation as VA secretary, and I’m confident that, under his leadership, Congress and the administration will continue making progress to improve the VA and ensure we’re keeping our promises to those who have served.”

Both Blunt and McCaskill voted for Wilkie’s confirmation.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, McCaskill’s likely Republican opponent in this fall’s midterm election, said in a statement McCaskill had not done enough to serve veterans because 40,000 are homeless and post traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain make them susceptible to drug overdose deaths.

“We can do better,” Hawley said. “We need to make sure that health providers and government agencies are ready and able to provide veterans the health and employment services they need — more options and more flexibility.”

Neither Hawley nor Blunt commented on VA privatization in their statements.

Trump’s visit was expected to draw a host of protests throughout the day. Two posted on Facebook drew more than 600 combined RSVPs, and thousands were “interested.”

Martha Gershun of Fairway helped organize Kansas City’s chapter of the Women’s March after Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. She said she wanted to send the message “that Donald Trump is not our legitimate president.”

“He has angered, offended, insulted so many groups of Americans — children, people living with disabilities, women, people of color, veterans, veterans’ families,” Gershun said.

According to a press release, six groups organized the event, called “Protest Trump — Bring Your Own Balloon (BYOB)“ on Facebook. The groups were Indivisible KC, the Human Rights Campaign-Kansas City, the Women’s March on Washington in Kansas City, Planned Parenthood of the Great Plains Votes, Heartland Alliance for Progress and Kansas City Veterans for Peace. Gershun said she expected hundreds — maybe thousands — of attendees.

Protesters take to the streets as President Trump visits Kansas City. Warning: This video does contain strong language.

“When the rest of America turns on their TVs and sees that Donald Trump has come to Kansas City, we want them to also see that Kansas City said, ‘No,’ ” Gershun said.

The group is planning to protest in the late afternoon, though Trump is expected in the morning.

Gershun said: “We’re not doing this so Trump hears it. We’re doing this so the rest of America hears it. The goal is not to change Donald Trump’s mind. I think that’s a fool’s errand. The goal is to mobilize Americans who feel differently to act, to protest, to resist and to vote.”

Yoder on board

U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder hopped aboard Air Force One Tuesday morning to join President Donald Trump during his visit to Kansas City.

It’s a sign both of the Trump administration’s commitment to re-electing Yoder this fall and of the Johnson County Republican’s increasing willingness to associate himself with the president’s brand.

His spokesman, C.J. Grover, confirmed in a text message that Yoder was aboard the plane Tuesday morning and that he would be returning to Washington, D.C., Tuesday evening ahead of the House Appropriations Committee’s markup of the Homeland Security budget the following day.

The Kansas congressman chairs the subcommittee that crafted the budget.

Yoder has voted consistently for Trump’s agenda, but has avoided connecting himself directly to the president until recent.

Yoder represents Kansas’ 3rd District, which Democrat Hillary Clinton narrowly won in 2016.

Trump’s visit follows a trip by Vice President Mike Pence earlier this month, which included a fundraiser for Yoder.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.