A new report from ProPublica found that three civilian men operating out of Mar-a-Lago and led by the chairman of Marvel Entertainment have been shaping the Department of Veterans Affairs at the highest levels during the Trump administration, working behind the scenes to push for projects, benefit their own interests, and push out people within the department’s leadership who opposed them.
In documents and interviews, ProPublica found that the three men had been part of the daily leadership of the agency, actively reviewing and weighing in on regular policy and personnel decisions.
Ike Perlmutter, the Marvel chairman, regularly talks to President Trump on the phone and acts as his go-to adviser on veterans issues, ProPublica reported. After Trump asked Perlmutter for help during his transition, Perlmutter offered to be an outside adviser, choosing the VA as his focus because he fought for Israel in the 1960s before moving to the U.S. Perlmutter, 75, then brought on two of his friends: Bruce Moskowitz, 70, a Palm Beach doctor, and Marc Sherman, 63, a lawyer. None of the three have ever served in the U.S. government or military.
Some examples of ways the three shaped projects, sometimes to their personal advantage, according to ProPublica’s reporting:
• Perlmutter spearheaded a public awareness campaign about veteran suicide with Johnson & Johnson. They promoted the campaign by ringing the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange, and executives from Marvel and its parent company Disney joined Johnson & Johnson as sponsors. Men dressed as Captain America and Spider-Man stood by as the bell was rung, and Marvel swag was handed out at the event.
• Perlmutter arranged conference calls with senior executives from Apple to develop an app to help veterans find medical services. Apple and the VA backed out after becoming too uncomfortable with the fact that Moskowitz wanted to bring on his own son to advise the project.
• Moskowitz connected David Shulkin with his friend from the American College of Surgeons. As a result, a plan (that later fell through after Shulkin was fired) was implemented to have the American College of Surgeons evaluate surgery programs at some VA hospitals.
The three were honest about their role to those inside the agency. Shulkin, who later became the secretary of Veterans Affairs, flew to Mar-a-Lago in 2017 at taxpayer expense to meet with the trio. After their meeting, Moskowitz laid out their relationship: “We do not need to meet in person monthly, but meet face to face only when necessary,” he wrote. “We will set up phone conference calls at a convenient time.”
But the three often displayed a lack of understanding of how government works, ProPublica found. For example:
Just after their first meeting, Moskowitz emailed Shulkin again to say, “Congratulations i[t] was unanimous.” Shulkin corrected him: “Bruce- this was not the confirmation vote- it was a committee vote- we still need a floor vote.”
On another occasion, Perlmutter forwarded a complaint of an acquaintance about her son being unable to access his military medical records. “I know we are making very good progress, but this is an excellent reminder that we are also still very far away from achieving our goals,” Perlmutter wrote in an email that included Shulkin. Shulkin replied by explaining records had to do with the Defense Department, not the VA.
Multiple former VA officials told ProPublica that though there were other factors, including an ethics scandal, that led to Shulkin’s downfall, it was his conflict with the Mar-a-Lago group that really pushed him out. The others singled out as challengers to the trio’s vision in a memo obtained by ProPublica have all also left the agency.
“At all times, we offered our help and advice on a voluntary basis, seeking nothing at all in return,” the three said in a joint statement to ProPublica. “While we were always willing to share our thoughts, we did not make or implement any type of policy, possess any authority over agency decisions, or direct government officials to take any actions… To the extent anyone thought our role was anything other than that, we don’t believe it was the result of anything we said or did.”