President Donald Trump signed a memo to automatically discharge federal student loan debt for permanently and totally disabled veterans during his visit to Louisville Wednesday, where he addressed hundreds of veterans.
“I have taken executive action to make sure our wounded warriors are not saddled with mountains of student debt,” Trump told a crowd at a downtown hotel, vowing to eliminate “every penny” of an average of $30,000 of student loan debt for about 25,000 disabled veterans.
Such veterans were already entitled to such debt forgiveness by law. But about half of the roughly 50,000 disabled veterans who are qualified to have their federal student loan debt forgiven have received the benefit because of an application process that has proven burdensome, the administration said.
The memo directs the government to develop an “expedited” process, which the Department of Education said would mean loans are forgiven unless veterans opt-out.
Trump’s speech at the 75th national convention of AMVETS, a major U.S. veterans’ organization, was part of a daylong visit to Louisville that also included a fundraiser for Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s reelection bid.
What is AMVETS? What to know about the group Trump is addressing in Louisville
Members of AMVETS, a congressionally chartered veterans service organization representing more than 250,000 veterans nationwide, cheered his speech.
Joe Chenelly, executive director of AMVETS, was glad the president, for the most part, stuck with key subjects that are priorities for veterans, including veterans’ health services, employment, education and the disturbingly high rate of suicide among vets.
“Suicide prevention is certainly our biggest thing,” Chenelly said.
Outside the downtown Galt House Hotel on the Ohio River, Trump’s appearance drew vendors selling Trump 2020 flags and shirts. Protesters chanted and held signs blasting Trump for “destroying our democracy,” including some veterans who opposed Trump’s support of a ban on transgender service members.
Inside, hundreds of veterans in garrison caps cheered Trump, who praised veterans and his efforts to build up the U.S. military, saying the U.S. had “pulverized” ISIS in Syria. He also touted the move to create a sixth branch of the Armed Forces, the “Space Force.”
“We’re rebuilding the awesome might of the United States military,” he said. “We make the best planes, we make the best missiles, we make the best ships, we make the best everything.”
Trump said he had worked to improve mental health services for veterans and reduce wait times and care at Veterans Affairs hospitals. He said the VA had fired 7,600 workers who weren’t providing proper care to veterans.
He also said he’d worked to reduce veteran unemployment, which had reached “the lowest level ever recorded.” In July 2019, the veteran unemployment rate was 3.4%, down from a high of 9.9% in 2011, according to the government.
“You are not forgotten,” Trump said.
He announced he would “sign a memorandum directing the Department of Education to eliminate every penny of Federal student loan debt owed by American veterans who are completely and permanently disabled.”
“Incredible. Nobody can complain about that,” he said, adding that federal taxes will not be applied to the forgiven debt.
In May, 51 U.S. attorneys general, including Andy Beshear in Kentucky, urged the U.S. Department of Education to automatically forgive the student loans of veterans who became totally and permanently disabled in connection with their military service. Of more than 42,000 veterans eligible, fewer than 9,000 had applied, while many were defaulting on loans.
Trump, who spoke mostly from a teleprompter in a scripted speech, also gave a nod to Kentucky’s political climate by shouting out Gov. Matt Bevin and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, two of his closest allies in the Bluegrass State.
Trump said the event wasn’t a campaign speech but still said he would “keep America great.” Claiming his administration has solved problems of veterans’ access to health care left by the previous administration, Trump said the “fake news” will probably try to undercut his claim.
“They’ll find somebody who wasn’t treated perfectly, and he’ll be on the top of the news tonight,” Trump said to laughter and applause from the crowd.
When introducing WWII veteran Woody Williams, who won the Medal of Honor, Trump — who received five deferments from the draft for military service during the Vietnam War — said of the medal: “I wanted one, but they told me I don’t qualify,” he said. “I said, ‘Can I give it to myself anyway?’ They said, ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea.’”
Trump also mentioned a drug that could help reduce suicide, apparently referring to Spravato, an anti-depressant made by Johnson & Johnson, saying his administration was seeking to buy as much of it as possible. The VA in June approved the use of the costly drug despite reported concerns among some experts about its effectiveness, the New York Times has reported.
After the speech, Trump drove past protesters to the nearby Seelbach Hotel to meet with a group of supporters and headline the private fundraiser hosted by Bevin’s campaign, where attendees could get a photo with Trump for $21,000. Bevin is being challenged by Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear in what could be a close election.
To enter the Seelbach ballroom, attendees were required to hand over their phones, said C. Michael Davenport, a Frankfort real estate developer who attended the fundraiser. The president talked about the economy’s strength, praised the governor and “revved up” the crowded ballroom, he said.
“The president did what the president does best: He talked about how great everything is,” said Davenport, sporting a blue “Keep America Great” cap.
U.S. Rep. Andy Barr told the Courier Journal that Trump addressed the economy but did not talk taxes. On Tuesday, Trump had raised the possibility of another round of tax breaks, but quickly reversed that stance before boarding Air Force One to Louisville Wednesday morning.
Other Republicans spotted leaving the fundraiser at the Seelbach included U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, state Auditor Mike Harmon, former Secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development Terry Gill, state Budget Director John Chilton and state Attorney General candidate Daniel Cameron.
The visit came during renewed fears of an economic slowdown amid Trump’s trade war with China and renewed calls for gun control measures after three recent mass shootings in Dayton, El Paso, and Gilroy, California. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer sought a meeting with Trump to discuss the issue but was unable to obtain one.
Trump was also facing criticism from Jewish groups for his remarks Tuesday that Jewish Americans who vote for Democrats show “a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
And Trump’s visit came amid his administration’s move to end a federal court agreement limiting how long immigrant children can be kept in detention. And he was also making headlines for canceling a trip to Denmark after its prime minister dismissed the notion of selling Greenland to the U.S. as “an absurd discussion.”
Trump has visited Kentucky several times in recent years, including a rally in Octoberto support Barr, where he focused heavily on immigration. At a 2016 campaign rally in Louisville, several protesters said they were assaulted by people in the crowd after Trump yelled, “Get ’em out of here.”
After Trump’s speech Tuesday, Eric Scherer, an Army veteran from Sandusky, Ohio, said the debt forgiveness effort was important and approved of Trump’s comments about building up the military. “New equipment for the military is long overdue,” he said.
But not everyone came away enthused, including an older veteran who didn’t give his name as he left. “I don’t support him,” he said of the president.
Trump, who arrived on Air Force One at 1:50 p.m., closing a major highway and other streets, departed around 5:30 p.m.
Reach reporter Chris Kenning at email@example.com or 502-396-43361 and follow him on Twitter at @chris_kenning. Reporters Joe Sonka, Deborah Yetter, Phillip Bailey, Alfred Miller and Sarah Ladd contributed to this report. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courierjournal.com/subscribe.
Read the full memorandum:
MEMORANDUM FOR THE SECRETARY OF EDUCATION
THE SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
SUBJECT: Discharging the Federal Student Loan Debt of Totally and Permanently Disabled Veterans
Since our Founding, the United States has been blessed with men and women willing to serve in defense of our Nation and our ideals. Many of those answering the call to serve make the ultimate sacrifice for their country, and many others carry physical and emotional scars for the rest of their lives. The Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended by the Higher Education Opportunity Act in 2008 and other acts (Higher Education Act), honors veterans who are totally and permanently disabled as a result of their service to the Nation by providing for the discharge of their Federal student loan debt. Borrowers who have been determined by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to be unemployable due to a service-connected condition and who provide documentation of that determination to the Secretary of Education are entitled to the discharge of such debt. For the last decade, veterans seeking loan discharges have been required to submit an application to the Secretary of Education with proof of their disabilities obtained from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The process has been overly complicated and difficult, and prevented too many of our veterans from receiving the relief for which they are eligible. This has inflicted significant hardship and serious harm on these veterans and has frustrated the intent of the Congress that their Federal student loan debt be discharged. Only half of the approximately 50,000 totally and permanently disabled veterans who currently qualify for the discharge of their Federal student loan debt have availed themselves of the benefits provided to them by the Higher Education Act. This has created a serious and critical problem for disabled veterans, who must deal with the day-to-day consequences of their service-connected injuries, and for our military, as readiness and recruitment suffer when we do not take care of our veterans. There is a pressing need to quickly and effectively resolve this problem. Therefore, my Administration will take prompt action to ensure that all totally and permanently disabled veterans are able to obtain, with minimal burden, the Federal student loan debt discharges to which they are legally entitled.
Accordingly, by the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, and to express the gratitude of our Nation for the service of our totally and permanently disabled veterans, I hereby direct the following:
Section 1. Policy. It shall be the policy of the Federal Government to facilitate — in a manner that is quick, efficient, and minimally burdensome — the discharge of Federal student loan debt for totally and permanently disabled veterans.
Sec. 2. Directive to the Secretaries of Education and Veterans Affairs. (a) The Secretary of Education is hereby directed to develop as soon as practicable a process, consistent with applicable law, to facilitate the swift and effective discharge of the Federal student loan debt of totally and permanently disabled veterans pursuant to section 437 of the Higher Education Act, 20 U.S.C. 1087; section 455 of the Higher Education Act, 20 U.S.C. 1087e; and section 464 of the Higher Education Act, 20 U.S.C. 1087dd. To the maximum extent feasible and consistent with applicable law, the process developed by the Secretary of Education should account for and make use of disability determinations made available to the Secretary of Education by the Department of Veterans Affairs. (b) The Secretaries of Education and Veterans Affairs (Secretaries) shall take appropriate action to implement the policy set forth in section 1 of this memorandum as expeditiously as possible. To that end, the Secretaries shall consider all pathways for the Department of Veterans Affairs to share disability determinations with the Department of Education, so that veterans may be relieved of the burdensome administrative impediments to Federal student loan debt discharge.
Sec. 3. Definitions. As used in this memorandum: (a) the term “Federal student loan debt” means liability to repay Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program loans, William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan (Direct Loan) Program loans, and Federal Perkins Loans. (b) the term “discharge” means discharge of FFEL Program loans and Direct Loan Program loans and cancellation of Federal Perkins Loans. Sec. 4. General Provisions. (a) Nothing in this memorandum shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect: (i) the authority granted by law to an executive department or agency, or the head thereof; or (ii) the functions of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget relating to budgetary, administrative, or legislative proposals. (b) This memorandum shall be implemented consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations. (c) This memorandum is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person. (d) The Secretary of Education is hereby authorized and directed to publish this memorandum in the Federal Register.