Tester meets Trump, seeks relief from VA hiring freeze

by Rob Chaney, Missoulian

In a “wide-open discussion,” President Donald Trump pushed for his Supreme Court nominee and appeared open to relaxing the federal hiring freeze at the Veterans Administration, according to Montana Sen. Jon Tester.

Tester was one of six Democratic senators along with four Republicans to meet with Trump at the White House on Thursday afternoon. He described the meeting as productive and “not confrontational at all.”

The first issue Trump raised was the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Tester was the second senator to get a personal interview with Gorsuch, but he said the president didn’t put any particular emphasis on Tester’s future voting position.

“I think Judge Gorsuch deserves a fair shake,” Tester said in a telephone interview after the meeting. “I won’t support or oppose his nomination until I get more feedback from Montanans.”

On Wednesday, Trump attacked Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, on Twitter and in public for reporting that Gorsuch had criticized the president’s delegitimizing of another federal judge as “demoralizing” and “disheartening.” Tester said the Twitter feud didn’t come up in Thursday’s meeting, but he was concerned about it.

“It’s not helpful,” Tester said. “I know Dick Blumenthal, and he’s a good man. The president has this reaction when people challenge him. I wouldn’t run the business that way, but he runs the business that way.

“I don’t think those Twitter feeds or sidebar comments about people’s personalities are helpful,” Tester added. “In time, he’ll realize that.”

Each senator at the meeting had an opportunity to raise issues to Trump. Tester said his topics included reforming the campaign finance system, banning all members of Congress and certain executive officials from lobbying the government for five years after leaving office, and lifting a communications ban that has limited the ability of Montana senior citizens to get information from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

“He seemed surprised when I brought that up,” Tester said of the communications ban, adding that Trump committed to looking into the problem promptly.

Tester told Trump the president’s civilian federal hiring freeze was hurting military veterans’ ability to get care and benefits from the Veterans Administration, and asked for more exemptions to get those personnel hired.

“He didn’t seem opposed to that,” Tester said of Trump’s response. “He didn’t push back at all.”

Tester asked the press corps to keep fact-checking White House statements in light of past untrue claims about illegal voting, inauguration crowd size and nonexistent terrorist massacres. But he added he had been impressed by the quality of many Trump administration staff.

“Reince Priebus is a very capable man,” Tester said of Trump’s chief of staff. “I met a member of his legal council and he was very solid – he’s got some really good people in the White House. (Chief Strategist Steve) Bannon is a bit more concerning – more than just a little bit. How he’s been elevated is concerning. There’s a lot of things he’s done that make you wonder where he’s getting his information from.”

The president will also have to start working more with Congress to move his agenda, Tester said. While Trump has signed executive orders calling for construction of a wall on the Mexican border, adding 5,000 additional Customs and Border Patrol officers and building more prisons, he has no budget authority to make those happen.

“They’ve brought in somewhere around $30 billion to $40 billion in additional costs for those executive orders just on Homeland Security,” said Tester, who is the ranking Democratic member of the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee. “He’s going to need Congress on some of those policies. If he doesn’t, they’ll have to be pulled back.”