Trump Touts Mission Act in 'Off the Record' Phone Call with Thousands of Veterans

President Donald Trump talks before signing anti-human trafficking legislation, Wednesday Jan. 9, 2019, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
President Donald Trump talks before signing anti-human trafficking legislation, Wednesday Jan. 9, 2019, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

A phone call between President Donald Trump and more than 10,000 veterans on Tuesday presented a chance for the president to hail the Department of Veterans Affairs' new expanded private health care services -- but the VA wanted no one beyond the call to know the details.

The conversation was advertised widely by VA last week as an opportunity for veterans to learn straight from the president about the VA Mission Act and the "milestones accomplished" since it was signed into law last June.

It garnered so much interest the VA had to "open another line," according to updates from the department, and invitations were sent to members of the media to join.

But at the start of the call, VA officials abruptly declared the conversation off the record and asked members of the press to leave.

"Thank you for joining today's Mission Act conference all .... This call is not intended for press purposes and is not on the record. If you are a member of the press, please disconnect now," the unnamed moderator said.

After his introduction, Trump thanked the moderator, adding, "I noticed you said 'If you are a member of the press, please disconnect. I'm sure they disconnected. I'm 100% sure there are probably many people of the press listening."

In journalism, "off the record" is an agreement made between both parties of a conversation that means nothing from the discussion can be used for publication. The terms must be agreed to by both parties at or before the start of the discussion.

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For Trump's phone call with veterans, members of the press were specifically invited to the call and were not informed of the "off the record" requirement beforehand.

During the call, Trump touted the VA Mission Act, which expands access to private health care for some veterans, as well as urgent care services for acute illnesses and injuries.

He also praised VA for hiring more physicians and health care providers and lauded Wilkie's work as secretary. In responses to questions from three veterans, Trump discussed long drives some veterans must undertake to VA care, a problem the Mission Act is aimed at eliminating. Trump also discussed lengthy VA appointment wait times and the problem of veterans suicides.

He also touted the newly available medication Spravato, a ketamine-based nasal spray made by Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, that was fast-tracked earlier this year by the FDA for patients with treatment-resistant depression.

VA is in the process of treating some patients with the novel medication, which is based on an anesthetic (and well-known party drug) ketamine.

"I thought it was so fantastic," Trump said. "I heard about it -- I remember I read something, I saw something, and I immediately called [Wilkie] and said, please call the head of the company, of Johnson & Johnson, and let's see what we can do for the vets."

The Mission Act expanded access to private health care to veterans who must drive more than 30 minutes to a VA facility for primary care or mental health services, or wait longer than 20 days for an appointment. It also introduced an urgent care benefit for veterans to receive same-day services at a VA private network facility for acute illnesses and injuries.

To access private care, veterans enrolled in VA care must consult with their VA physicians, who will then use a decision tool to determine whether veterans are eligible for private care.

Throughout the 18-minute call, Trump continued to refer to the "listening press," especially following a statement on new hires at VA.

"Today there are 200,000 more doctors, nurses, physicians assistants than we had the day I got elected. I've never read that. I know it's a fact. I have all the fact sheets. But I've never read that, nor do I expect to read it, even though I know there are a lot of press on the phone," Trump said.

President Trump himself has agreed to off-the-record discussions and then written on them, most notably last year with the publisher of the New York Times. He went on to tweet about the contents of the discussion.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.

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