Montana’s Sen. Tester says he’s ‘not worried’ about feud with Trump over VA nominee

by Montana Standard, David McCumber

BIG SANDY – Spring in northern Montana is an eye-blink of time between snow and dust.

It came late this year, which means farmers have precious little time to get their fields planted.

So no way was Jon Tester going to leave his tractor just to talk about the little spat he’s having with the president of the United States.

So I went to him Thursday for his first interview on the subject – sharing his tractor cab as he worked on getting seed in the ground on his 1,800 acres.

“We’ve got pretty good moisture now. But it better rain in July,” he fretted. “Otherwise, as late as we’re getting the seed in the ground, we’re not going to have much of a year.”

In fact, Montana’s senior senator sounded a lot more concerned about the weather come July than about the prospect of an enraged President Trump campaigning against him in the fall.

“I’m going to do what I’m supposed to do and the president is going to do what he’s going to do,” Tester says. “I’m not worried about it.”

He says that looking back over the past month and his vetting of Veterans Affairs secretary nominee Ronny Jackson, he wouldn’t have done anything different than he did.

“I did what I was supposed to. I took the sources seriously, I was transparent, I gave everybody a chance to respond.”

Tester, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, provoked Trump’s ire by releasing anonymous allegations about Jackson from 25 members of the military who have worked with him. They ranged from complaints over a toxic work environment to allegations that Jackson distributed prescription drugs far too freely, drank on the job and even wrecked a government vehicle. The White House has said there is no evidence of such a crash.

“These were very reputable people,” Tester says. “All active or retired military. We heard the same story from them from a few different angles.”

Tester said he would have welcomed a rebuttal from Jackson. “He could have answered the allegations, maybe we could have knocked them down and moved him closer to confirmation,” Tester said. “But he chose to withdraw.

“How would it have looked if I’d said, ‘We don’t think much of these allegations, we’re going to sweep them under the rug?’ I wouldn’t have been doing my job.”

Tester stressed, “We didn’t seek this information. It came to us. And I was doing my constitutional duty. I did what I thought was right and important to do.

“Now we need to move on and get another nominee.”

For Tester, who never served in the military, his concern for veterans is an outgrowth of his experience as a youth. His brother served in the military, and Tester learned to play the bugle, so he was in demand at military funerals, to play taps.

“Talk about making an impression – a positive impression – on a kid,” he said.

“When you’re 12, 13, 14, you walk in and see the honor guard with the American flag.

“The minister says what he says, there’s a 21-gun salute, then you play taps. If you do it right everybody’s crying.

“It was the best experience of my life. And it’s been a constant thread.”

He still plays taps occasionally at Veterans Day and Memorial Day ceremonies, and he said playing at the funeral of his former colleague, Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, in 2012 was incredibly moving.

When he got to the Senate, he naturally gravitated to the committee. “We have a lot of veterans in Montana,” Tester said. About 100,000 – 10 percent of the population.

One of the first issues he worked on was the mileage reimbursement for veterans who had to travel long distances for services. “It was a few pennies,” he says. “So we went to work on it, and we fixed it. And that was the first of 5,000 individual Montana veterans we’ve helped with issues” since 2007, he said. “And yes, we’re damn proud of that.”

So many issues now face a new secretary, he says – like how to fix the Choice program, which gives veterans access to some private-sector health care services under some circumstances.

“I like it as a wraparound,” Tester says – “to do the things the VA can’t. If we’ve got a guy in Scobey, why make him to to Helena if he can get what he needs in the private sector there?” But, he adds, “you can’t privatize the VA. It won’t work for veterans. The VA can outsource services, but it can’t outsource responsibility.”

He thought that David Shulkin, the former VA secretary fired by Trump, “had the department headed in the right direction. Now we have to get moving again.”

If Trump has had enough of Tester and the VA, the two are inexorably headed for yet another confrontation. Tester is also ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security appropriations subcommittee. That means he has at least a partial hold on the purse strings for … the Wall.

“There’s no question we have to secure our border,” Tester says. “But we have to do it intelligently. Some places, a wall will work well. Other places….”

But whatever else happens, he knows he has an implacable political enemy in the president. But he doesn’t care.

“I don’t think this whole thing is going to make any difference” in his re-election fight, he said. “It was going to be tough anyway. They’re going to come after me. They already were.”

He added, “Montanans don’t care about razzle-dazzle from politicians. They want their politicians to stick up for them and work hard. That’s what I did on this. I stuck up for them, and I worked hard.”

Asked if it would make a difference if Trump came to Montana to campaign against him, he shrugged.

“Bush came in ’06,” he said. “Frankly, I hope he does come and take a look at some of our needs here, the infrastructure, veterans’ needs.”

As he guided the big tractor around the field, row after row, Tester said, “You know, politics is kind of like farming. You prepare the soil, you put the seed in the ground, you water it, and God willing you get to cut a crop.

“If not, you re-till it and try again.

“With a new nominee.”