On June 23, 2017, Sarah Verardo, now the CEO of a veterans’ charity called the Independence Fund, and her husband, Mike, a two-time Purple Heart recipient and double amputee, attended a White House bill-signing as Donald Trump’s guests of honor. Mike, a former infantryman in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, told the crowd that a “new day” had dawned under the president. Minutes later, Trump cited the Verardos’ experience while he promised sweeping changes to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Then he signed the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act into law and gave his pen to Mike, who beamed.
Since he first ran for president, Trump has relied on the Verardos, and the 501(c)(3) charity that they’ve become the faces of, to bolster the perception that he is a staunch ally of veterans. In 2016, Trump invited the family to the Republican National Convention, where they watched the proceedings from a VIP box alongside his family. Six days before the election, Mike Verardo endorsed Trump in a front-page story in the New York Times. “I think [Trump’s] genuine,” he observed. Days later, veterans backed Trump by large margins, which played a key role in his wins in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
The Verardos have supported a slate of VA reforms pushed by the Trump administration, which has privatized agency services and, under the cover of the accountability act, busted unions, fired hundreds of low-level employees, and retaliated against whistleblowers. In a 2018 interview on Fox News with Laura Ingraham, Sarah cast her family’s struggles as indicative of problems that Barack Obama refused to address and Trump had fixed. “When Michael left the Army, his war ended and mine began,” she said, later contending that Trump has an “unmatched heart for America’s veterans.” After the Atlantic reported that Trump privately called dead American soldiers “losers” and asked that wounded warriors be kept out of a planned political parade, Trump surrogates pointed to Mike as evidence of the president’s dedication to those injured in battle.
In turn, the president has boosted Sarah’s and Mike’s individual profiles and helped transform the Independence Fund, or TIF, into one of the most influential wounded-warrior groups in the United States. During last winter’s White House tree lighting, Trump thanked Sarah for “uplifting our nation.” In a speech the year before, Vice President Mike Pence called her a “hidden hero.” Sean Spicer, Trump’s former communications director, sits on the charity’s board of directors. TIF officials have commanded outsize influence over veterans’ policy under Trump, enjoyed personalized attention on issues large and small, and secured government and diplomatic partnerships to prevent veteran suicide and help promote peace in Afghanistan.
During the vice president’s RNC speech this year, Sarah sat in the second row. Mike was featured in a slick video that night and served as a member of the 2020 Veterans for Trump campaign committee. While Trump lost reelection, over the last four years he has powerfully and perhaps permanently elevated TIF and the Verardos. The group today enjoys a plethora of influential supporters including corporate titans such as Boeing, UPS, and American Airlines; country music stars; conservative pundits; and members of Congress, including Thom Tillis, a Republican senator from North Carolina, where the Verardos live and TIF is based.
But according to internal charity documents and interviews with 30 current and former board members, staffers, and volunteers closely involved in the group’s operations, TIF’s positive public image obscures years of improper spending and dubious charity work. (Twenty-two of the 30 TIF officials I interviewed requested anonymity, citing either fear of retaliation or the nondisclosure agreements they signed.) After reviewing TIF’s publicly available tax documents, Stephanie Kalivas, an analyst at the watchdog group CharityWatch, described some of the group’s accounting practices as “suspect at best,” adding, “I’ve never seen such inconsistent 990 reporting from one charity.”
Although Sarah has compared TIF to a “disaster relief organization, fluid and on the ground,” she has quietly diverted TIF dollars to support her family’s lavish lifestyle, from a Disney World retreat to a personal nanny and first-class air travel. “The charity has basically become the Sarah Verardo Fund,” one recently departed staffer told me. “Sarah’s spending was breaking the organization,” another complained.
Trump will soon be out of office, but one of his many lasting legacies will be the years he spent bolstering organizations and personalities whose tactics and ideology hew closely to his own. And while TIF’s history is marked by significant assistance to veterans, the organization has a distinctly Trumpist side.
Sarah Verardo and other TIF officials did not grant interview requests for this article. In a written statement, she said her conduct inside the charity over the last seven years was always honest, ethical, and authorized. She says that under her leadership TIF has worked “to fundamentally change [its] workplace culture and financial management,” which included introducing internal and external audits and imposing accounting, conflict-of-interest, and ethics policies. “I am blessed to serve America’s Veterans and their caregivers,” her statement reads, “and I cannot think of anything more worthwhile.” John Bauer, a nonprofit consultant who worked with Sarah and helped institute some of these reforms, says he never went deep into the organization’s finances and declined to comment on specifics, but he described Sarah as “always eager to do things right.” He added, “Sarah Verardo deserves a parade.”
Paul McKellips, who served as TIF’s chief communications officer from May 2018 to May 2019, said that although “the majority of Sarah’s heart is in the right place,” she could be an “oppressive” leader and was often a poor steward of the organization’s finances. “She travels like a Fortune 500 CEO,” he said. “She stayed at fancy hotels, flew first-class most of the time, and wanted Town Car service, while myself and others were hunkering down at Hampton Inns and car-pooling in sub-compacts. Sure, you have to live when you’re traveling, but not in largesse. We have an undeniable fiduciary responsibility to donors.” In one illustrative instance, another source said Sarah scoffed at the convenient mid-level hotel chain the charity booked for her in Los Angeles. Minutes later, she’d secured a room at the Ritz-Carlton. TIF claimed that the original hotel was the subject of bedbug complaints online, an account contradicted by one source and not further substantiated by TIF.
Sarah spent the summer of 2019 flying across the country to attend at least eight shows by country music stars Toby Keith and Florida Georgia Line, during which TIF presented high-tech all-terrain wheelchairs valued at roughly $16,000 to veterans with disabilities. The chair giveaways are powerful made-for-TV moments that Fox News often highlights. But they incur high costs that TIF sources say aren’t justified by any related PR benefits. TIF officials defended the chair giveaways and said Sarah’s travel is “essential” for programmatic and fundraising purposes. While they declined to detail how much charity money has gone toward Sarah’s travel in recent years, TIF’s most recent 990 data details more than $1.4 million spent on total travel for the organization from July 2018 through June 2019, which equates to 23 percent of all contributions and grants that came in over that period.
According to McKellips and another source, Sarah has demanded that veterans featured in country music chair giveaways have severe, apparent injuries and look the part of the wounded warrior, a standard he found “egregious and disgusting.”
“If I heard it once, I heard it 50 times—including during all-hands employee staff meetings—wounded veterans needed to look like they came from ‘central casting’ before a track-chair could be awarded,” McKellips said. A current TIF staffer said that in the charity’s work to find picture-perfect recipients, staffers have recruited veterans who hadn’t previously applied for a chair and have little interest in receiving one.
During one Florida Georgia Line show in Massachusetts last July, Army veteran Chris Roseberry was awarded a top-of-the-line chair onstage. According to a TIF staffer, the charity spent $4,150 to purchase 10 VIP tickets to the show for Sarah, her friends, and Sean Spicer. (TIF says tickets “were not purchased to give out to friends” but didn’t give a VIP guest list for the show). On the night of the concert, when only eight of the VIP tickets had been claimed, someone suggested that the extra two be given to Roseberry and his wife. According to documents and a staffer, Sarah Verardo’s response was firm: No.
Retired Marine Corps Lt. Colonel Steve “Luker” Danyluk started TIF in 2007 as an all-volunteer venture after becoming incensed by a New York Times editorial critical of a charity called the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes. The coalition, along with another veterans’ charity, paid out $1.5 million to its founder, Roger Chapin, and his wife in salaries, bonuses, and reimbursements over three years. In House testimony, Chapin admitted to spending charity dollars on a $17,000 golf club membership, a six-figure divorce settlement for the charity’s executive director, and reimbursement for a down payment on a failed condo deal.
Over its first five years, TIF was powered by a relatively small budget and a crop of dedicated volunteers. But in 2012, Luker met then–Fox News megastar Bill O’Reilly, who was an immediate fan of the group’s track-chair giveaways. When Luker told O’Reilly that the VA considered the chairs a nonessential luxury item, the host was incredulous and promised to help. Soon after, he began plugging the charity’s work on his primetime show. He even convinced all five then-living presidents to sign a batch of pictures that were auctioned off in support of TIF’s mission. (Although O’Reilly left Fox in 2017 following a number of suits and settlements with female employees related to allegations of sexual misconduct, he still plugs TIF on his online show; Fox continued to support the charity, partnering with TIF as recently as last summer to give away track-chairs.)
O’Reilly’s support catalyzed a 3,000 percent jump in donations to the charity. Although TIF took in $614,000 in 2012, it ended 2013 with $19.3 million in contributions, much of it from everyday Fox viewers who gave what they could. One notable $15,000 contribution came from the Donald J. Trump Foundation, which was later dissolved following an investigation by the New York attorney general’s office.
Luker, a full-time airline pilot, and his small crew of volunteers kept track of the money, but like many small nonprofits that receive sudden windfalls, the organization was unprepared for the O’Reilly bump and the staff was quickly overwhelmed. “This is a non-profit run from the suitcase of an airline pilot,” Luker reflected in a 2015 e-mail as cash poured in. “And almost overnight, that suitcase had $30 million dollars stuffed into it.” This introduction of funds created exciting possibilities for Luker and his team but also raised the risk that the venture could slip into dubious financial behavior exhibited by other veteran charities.
During this time, staff and board members generally became concerned about how the newfound charity dollars were being spent. Luker and others defended his tenure, but the founder himself acknowledged he fell short as fundraising exploded. “I think I need to take a substantial amount of the blame,” he said. “I had never run a nonprofit before, especially one taking millions in the bank.”
With the new glut of money, so too came new supporters. Sarah first connected with the charity in the summer of 2013, when TIF gave a chair to Mike, who lost his left leg and much of his left arm, and experienced a traumatic brain injury in a 2010 IED blast in southern Afghanistan. The charity also invited the couple to a retreat featuring actor Gary Sinise’s veteran-themed rock group, the Lt. Dan Band, named after the wounded Vietnam veteran Sinise played in Forrest Gump. In remarks last year, Sarah said it was out of Mike’s pain that her passion for veteran advocacy was born. She spoke stirringly of how the VA failed to develop a care plan until seven weeks after Mike returned home from the hospital. Absent help, Sarah learned how to pack his wounds via YouTube tutorials and enlisted local firefighters to bring him in and out of their wheelchair-inaccessible home. “I duct-taped his prosthetic leg together while I waited 57 days for the VA to sign a piece of paper authorizing repair to it,” she said. “It was a really dark time.”
Soon after Mike received his chair, Sarah became Luker’s aide, then secured a new title—director of fundraising and community outreach. “Anything she wanted to do, he let her,” said Norm “Frenchy” LaFountaine, a former board member. Sarah’s backstory as a caregiver to Mike, and telegenicism, made her an ideal fundraiser and public surrogate, and she quickly took on responsibilities that extended beyond her title. In March 2014, one TIF volunteer vented to another on Facebook that “Sarah has not been here long enough to determine who needs to be ADVISING indy on ANYTHING.”
Amid this loose cash management, Sarah often racked up tens of thousands of dollars in charges each month on her charity credit card, and at least one TIF official pushed for account access to be revoked for Sarah and anyone else who was not a board member. Her statements from late 2014 and 2015 detail pricey meals, town car service, and retail spending at places like LL Bean, including a charge for $540.58 on December 3, 2014. A 2015 email TIF shared with Mother Jones indicates that, at the time, Sarah blamed certain charges on credit card fraud. In a statement, TIF’s board contended that other charges flagged by Mother Jones were spent on veterans and caregivers. However, neither Sarah nor TIF disputed most of her spending when asked by Mother Jones.
According to internal emails and former staffers, she also used a Chevrolet Suburban purchased by the charity as her own. It was damaged in a 2015 accident during a family trip to Rhode Island that mixed work and pleasure. Her TIF credit card statements from the time show more than $700 spent to tow the SUV and rent a car to get her home. TIF said board members cleared Sarah’s rental costs, and asserted that the charity’s Suburbans were specifically purchased for “personal and professional use.” They added that, under Sarah’s leadership, TIF has mandated “vehicle mileage logs and sign outs.” (Emails provided by TIF from 2014 to 2015 show Luker expressing concern over two other volunteers’ alleged misuse of charity vehicles, but do not implicate Sarah. In an interview, Luker said Sarah’s car was supposed to be used for shuttling veterans from the airport to TIF facilities.)
The Verardos also received direct support from at least one TIF benefactor. In one 2015 email, Sarah said a donor had given $10,000 to the charity—including “5k earmarked for Mike.” Mike is part of TIF’s Tiger Team 7—a group of veteran ambassadors who give motivational speeches—but serves no administrative role in the charity. In this role, Mike has received significant travel and lodging expenses, including for a visit to a Las Vegas gun show that, according to TIF, helped build donor relationships and supported adaptive hunting programs. “I know that [Mike] has benefitted more than any other veteran we’ve served,” said Jess McDonald, who worked as an executive assistant at TIF.
In 2015, an initial internal audit found TIF did not maintain a set of financial statements or a general ledger. This resulted in money moving out the door with little oversight or documentation. The auditor’s preliminary assessment notes that the failure to account for certain expenditures “could have an effect on the organization’s tax-exempt status.” After analyzing TIF’s publicly available 990 tax disclosures from this period, CharityWatch’s Kalivas echoed these worries, saying it was nearly impossible to account for the effectiveness or extent of the charity’s work since it was often transacted through vaguely recorded cash handouts. In 2015, for instance, TIF listed nearly $12 million in unspecified “benefits paid to or for members.”
Sources and audit materials describe potential conflicts of interest and questionable arrangements, including a financial agreement between TIF and a Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatment (HBOT) center. Billed as a PTSD and traumatic brain injury treatment (later debunked by a joint VA and DOD study that found no real evidence of efficacy), HBOT involves placing patients in a pressurized oxygen chamber. TIF funneled more than $400,000 into this center, which, despite offering lodging to those undergoing treatment, experienced power shutoffs due to outstanding bills. One caregiver said her husband’s eardrums ruptured during a treatment. HBOT employees also improperly invoiced TIF for thousands of dollars, including for airfare costs tied to a veteran who had, in fact, driven to the center.
Although Sarah’s TIF work began in a volunteer capacity, by 2015 she was being paid discreetly by the hyperbaric center in a convoluted arrangement sources say was intended to keep up the appearance that she wasn’t being compensated, and thus that TIF remained an all-volunteer venture. This arrangement and other transactions by the hyperbaric center were later flagged during the 2015 audit, which noted that the charity “does not have procedures in place to ensure that expenditures are correctly classified.” While documents show and sources recall that Sarah was involved in the center’s work, TIF said that Sarah “was not in a leadership position for any of the HBOT decisions that occurred.” TIF did not respond to direct questions over her payment arrangement there.
Other concerning projects and payments raised some staffers’ and board members’ eyebrows, too. Former board treasurer Jerry Kykisz, for instance, expressed displeasure at the decision to pay off an employee’s home mortgage so that she and her husband could become resident overseers of a property the charity purchased to hold retreats in South Carolina. Kykisz said he later saw a number of “bullshit invoices” for far-too-expensive maintenance costs at the retreat. Reflecting on apparent conflicts of interest and dubious charity expenses he saw in his time on the board, Kykisz said “it all turned into a con game.”
Amid this wave of questionable spending, charity work faltered. In a May 2015 email to staff, then–TIF board member Erick Castro called out the organization for neglecting hundreds of applications from veterans seeking all-terrain wheelchairs. “There are veterans who have applied for our help waiting by their phone for a call from the Independence Fund that never comes,” Castro wrote. (TIF said there are around 60 veterans on the waitlist today, but noted this backlog is largely a result of the charity expanding eligibility for a broader range of injuries and to veterans of all eras.)
In July 2015, amid these crises, Sarah apparently sought to oust Luker, drafting a letter that expressed concerns over “operational and financial deficits” and that alleged Luker “has issues with substance abuse.” Sarah sent these remarks to board member Jesse Acosta, a blind Iraq War veteran with a traumatic brain injury, with explicit instructions: Copy and paste the letter into a new email to Fox News officials “so they do not see that I drafted it.” (TIF said a “third person” requested Sarah write this e-mail, but did not specify who.) Verardo’s claims reached Fox, and eventually Luker’s airline, which investigated and cleared him. (TIF said that Sarah was not responsible for forwarding the claims to the airline.)
Sources differed on whether Luker’s drinking justified his ouster, though on February 5, 2015, Luker acknowledged in an email that his drinking had become “problematic” and promised to get his act together. Ten days later, Luker said in an email that he was “completely sober,” adding, “I have not felt better in years.” Today, Luker says he rarely imbibes, but acknowledged drinking more over the time in question “because I could feel the Fund slipping away.” As internal strife mounted, Luker expressed an eagerness to professionalize the organization. In hopes of bringing things in line, Luker sought unsuccessfully to remove Sarah. Then, that October, he was removed in a board vote “without cause,” according to minutes from the meeting.
On his way out, Luker asked for assurances that more than $8 million in earmarked donations would be spent to honor donors’ wishes. “Until that key component is adequately addressed I will not be able to begin my leave,” he wrote to the board. Convinced that this and other concerns were not adequately addressed, Luker drafted a 180-page dossier of evidence alleging illegal behavior inside his once-promising charity and sent it to the Florida attorney general’s office. He says he never received a response.
In response to questions, the charity sent a statement that broadly contended issues from that era fell exclusively at Luker’s feet, and repeatedly asserted that Sarah wasn’t in a leadership position until 2017, when she became executive director and made a number of changes, including initiating the independent audit. The board pointed to much of the good work the charity has done over the years, such as providing nearly 2,500 wheelchairs to veterans and helping more than 2,000 veteran and military families meet rent and other living costs during the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. “Now, the leadership is different, the Board is different,” the statement reads. “We have learned hard lessons and have been working diligently to address issues and institute controls and best practices to help TIF continue to be a source of hope and support for the wounded veterans we serve.”
Luker, for his part, said Sarah was a key adviser and that he corresponded with her more than any other staffer. “I think her power was what she created for herself,” he said, further describing her as “Machiavellian.”
TIF did not detail exactly when she attained specific roles in the organization. But by 2015, in addition to her fundraising position Sarah also held a seat on the charity’s advisory board. By 2016, she was one of just four staffers and had a new title: development director. McDonald, the executive assistant who worked at TIF in 2016, suggested spending issues continued over this period. Although many donations were earmarked for specific projects, she said money essentially went into one giant pot, to which multiple staffers enjoyed unfettered access. “In order to hold integrity in the non-profit world you have to track every cent,” said McDonald. “None of that was going on here.” Verardo then became executive director in September 2017 and CEO in 2018, a title change for essentially the same position.
Publicly, Sarah projected the relaxed confidence of a problem solver as she took charge. In a statement, Dr. Rich Jadick, a former TIF board member, said Sarah was “steadfast, honest, and loyal to that mission during the times when turmoil was inherent.” The current board offered similar plaudits, projecting “full confidence in current leadership.” Bauer, the TIF consultant who served from 2017 to 2018, declined to comment on his work coaching Sarah in executive governance, describing it as akin to a patient-therapist relationship, but said she was “receptive.” One former employee who worked with Sarah after she became executive director called her a “great salesman,” but stressed that she was not qualified to be overseeing a large operation. “She’s not a leader, she’s a chaos-creator,” he added.
After reviewing TIF’s most recent 990s, Kalivas noted that the organization’s reporting had improved since 2017 but said that its disclosure practice still “avoids full transparency and continues to raise questions about how donor funds are being spent.” One former staffer said Sarah can still rack up many thousands of dollars a month on her charity card, while others expressed frustration that charity dollars, until recently, directly covered the costs for a nanny to watch the Verardos’ children. “The past and present board approved childcare support as part of compensation for both Sarah and another employee,” TIF said in its statement, but did not answer follow up questions about how long this arrangement has existed or why other parents on staff were not offered similar assistance.
The charity’s 2018 Disney World retreat for military families included thousands spent on travel and housing for Sarah and members of her extended family. One of them was her aunt, Suzi Nance, who’s been contracted by the charity since 2016 to assist with caregiver retreats. In a statement, TIF said Nance “receives rave reviews.” They did not detail how much Nance is compensated, but said Sarah recused herself from the board’s vote to hire her.
Today, Sarah serves not only as CEO but also as a voting board member. As such, she’s been able to control internal dissent over her spending and leadership by mandating that staff messages to the board pass through her, TIF sources say. Nonprofit experts generally advise against leaders serving on the board, arguing that separation promotes better oversight and independence. In a statement, TIF said she was invited on the board “at the recommendation of a consultant assisting TIF with best practices.” Asked, Bauer said he had not been the one to make this recommendation. “I don’t consider it out of the ordinary,” he said, “though I generally advise against it.”
After Sarah bet big on Trump in 2016, she refashioned herself as a veterans policy expert and advocate for caregivers like herself. The charity didn’t report paying her until 2017, when tax records show that she received a salary of $156,731. As TIF established a Washington presence, Sarah hired Bob Carey, a Navy veteran and pugnacious political operator with friends in high places. “If you’re not friendly with Bob, you’re not going to get in the White House,” said Kristofer Goldsmith, a former legislative advocate at Vietnam Veterans of America. “What experience does he have with policy work? I don’t know. But he’s a gatekeeper.”
Before he arrived at TIF, Carey served as the GOP’s top organizer of veteran voters, helping Trump secure his enormous support among former service members. Carey’s close allies include senior White House officials, conservative lawmakers, and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie.
One former congressional aide described Carey as the “Roger Stone of the veterans’ space.” In 2019, according to an investigation by the Vietnam Veterans of America, Carey spearheaded a campaign to spam the federal commenting process to convey the impression of broad public support for a proposal in Trump’s signature VA privatization law, the Mission Act. A cursory investigation by the VA’s Office of Inspector General later found a “substantial portion” of the more than 23,000 comments received were in the form of an identical letter, which had also been promulgated by TIF, and that at least nine people contacted the department asking that their comments be withdrawn. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) characterized the flood of comments as “alarming” and potentially in violation of federal law, but could not secure a more fulsome inquiry by federal authorities.
Much of TIF’s advocacy concerns the VA caregiver program, which pays stipends to family members who take care of wounded veterans. The program is popular, but according to advocates hundreds of deserving caregivers have been kicked off the rolls in recent years because of vague eligibility requirements and perverse budgetary incentives. Many in the program have been put in low-level tiers that compensate them modestly for their assistance.
Not Sarah, who has been in the program since 2013. She has secured a rare and highly coveted full-time caregiver tier from the VA, entitling her to $2,039 a month in federal benefits. Many who know Sarah or have worked alongside her are uneasy with her securing such a high level of support despite her six-figure salary and the amount of time she spends away from Mike. “In order to be considered a caregiver you need to be the person providing care, day in and day out,” vented an early TIF volunteer named Alishia Graham. “Sarah doesn’t do that.” TIF called Graham’s depiction of Sarah’s situation, which was echoed by other caregivers and policy advocates, “false and disrespectful.”
As Sarah jetted around the country, charity staffers tell Mother Jones that she hired an aide for Mike and at times asked TIF employees to transport him. Federal rules require that “personal care services must be provided by the Family Caregiver” and prohibit care from being “simultaneously and regularly provided by or through another individual or entity.” TIF said “Sarah is not a medical professional and therefore cannot provide some of Mike’s care,” but that she “coordinates his supervisory and hands on care and/or performs it herself.” They did not directly answer whether they believe Sarah qualifies for her full-time designation, and two caregiving experts said Sarah’s reliance on outside help and her role coordinating care would normally disqualify her from receiving benefits.
Sarah is one of the White House’s go-to sources on caregiving issues. Late last year, TIF leaders enjoyed an exclusive meeting with 16 VA officials to discuss the program’s expansion. A few months later, she was appointed to an influential federal committee. In public comments, TIF argued for the elimination of the requirement that the VA periodically reassess the status of caregivers who tend to permanently and totally disabled veterans, calling the reassessments “insulting to the Veteran.” TIF officials also contended that caregivers who secured outside help should not see their benefits questioned.
As TIF’s designated chief advocacy officer, Carey has focused significant energy on the specific needs of the Verardos. According to emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, he’s lined up powerful officials to visit Mike in the hospital, among them a senior adviser to the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In May 2018, Carey alerted top VA officials that Sarah had been taking “copious notes” identifying differences in Mike’s care between Walter Reed and the VA, “with Walter Reed being much better.” In response, the VA’s then-Chief of Staff, Pamela Powers, told Carey to “pass [Sarah’s] notes onto us” and said that impending rule changes would hopefully clear up issues that Mike was encountering.
Last March, as Trump signed an executive order aimed at stemming veteran suicide, members of Mike’s former Army unit, Bravo Company, spoke to Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin about the grueling mental toll of war. At the end of the segment, Griffin noted that TIF had created a program called “Operation Resiliency” in which Bravo Company would reunite and reconnect for a weekend of camaraderie and healing in an effort to “halt this epidemic.”
The VA has since forged a partnership with TIF to support Operation Resiliency. The Bravo retreat was held in 2019 at a fancy hotel in Charlotte, North Carolina, and, along with counseling sessions, had all the marks of a raucous party weekend: white-water rafting, axe-throwing, golf, and what numerous sources described as a booze-soaked atmosphere. This environment runs counter to VA orthodoxy, which warns of alcohol as a toxic crutch for veterans struggling with mental health issues. Sources said the Bravo Company retreat cost at least $150,000 and that TIF cut that allotment roughly in half when subsequent units went through the program; it also restricted the availability of alcohol. “TIF was building the airplane while flying,” the charity said in a statement, terming the initial retreats “pilots.” “As issues arose, changes were made, and best practices were set in place for all retreats.”
The Verardos spent the summer and fall doubling down on their support for Trump. Mike served on the campaign’s Veterans for Trump committee and Sarah deputized staff to help pack White House events with veterans. In early September, TIF flew in a cadre of 25 veterans to an event helmed by Trump in Wilmington, North Carolina, marking the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Midway through his remarks, as thunder cracked in the background, Trump looked into the sky, then to the veterans. “God is saluting you,” he said. The event, at times, felt like a campaign rally, with Trump seemingly making his case to voters in the swing state. “You’ve been very nice, very, very nice, every time we’ve asked for something,” he said, “but I’ve been nice to you also. I have to say that.”
In August, Sen. Tillis, VA Secretary Wilkie, and various veteran leaders dedicated a bench to Mike at his local VFW post in a ceremony hosted by TIF. The president sent a letter to Mike for the occasion. “Your legacy of selfless service does not fade but grows more meaningful with the passage of time,” Trump wrote. “Your actions have demonstrated that there is no greater courage than that which burns in the hearts of America’s warriors.”
Trump’s failed reelection could put the Verardos’ influence over veterans’ issues into flux—and possibly bring further scrutiny to TIF’s practices. In February 2019, McKellips, then still TIF’s chief flack, wrote to Sarah with concerns that the charity might “sometimes go too far into the lobbying space.” “The IRS won’t mess with our 501c3 status as long as Trump is in office,” he wrote, characterizing TIF as being “tied-at-the-hip with Trump/Pence.” “But during the next Democrat administration? Who knows.”
This story has been updated to clarify that Jess McDonald joined The Independence Fund in 2016, one year after Lt. Col. Steven Danyluk’s departure.