Robert L. Wilkie, acting Veterans Affairs secretary, photographed on Nov. 2, 2017 during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill.

Robert L. Wilkie, acting Veterans Affairs secretary, photographed on Nov. 2, 2017 during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill. ( Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump announced Friday his intent to nominate Robert Wilkie as the next secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Wilkie has been serving in the role in an interim basis since March 28.

Trump made the surprise announcement Friday morning at the White House during a public speech about prisons and the criminal justice system. He said Wilkie, who was in the audience, has done an “incredible job” at the VA.

“I’ll be informing him in a little while – he doesn’t know this yet – that we’re going to be putting his name up for nomination to be secretary of the veterans administration,” Trump said.

“I’m sorry that I ruined the surprise.”

Trump’s previous nominee for the job – White House physician Ronny Jackson – withdrew from consideration April 26. His nomination quickly fell apart after unnamed coworkers alleged Jackson was a toxic leader, drank on the job and doled out controlled substances.

Following Jackson’s failed nomination, Trump said he had another candidate in mind – someone with “political capabilities.”

Wilkie was rumored to be among possible picksfor the past several weeks. Others included Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., former Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.

Trump chose Wilkie to temporarily lead the VA after he fired former VA Secretary David Shulkin in March. Wilkie came to the VA from the Pentagon, where he worked as the undersecretary of personnel and readiness.

Wilkie is a former adviser to Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

“Robert holds pragmatic and common-sense views on modernizing the agency and upholding its core mission of providing veterans with the best health care, resources and support possible,” Tillis said in a prepared statement.

Wilkie served as an officer in the Navy and Air Force before working as a senior leader at the Pentagon under former secretaries of defense Robert Gates and Donald Rumsfeld. His father was an Army artillery commander.

If confirmed by the Senate, Wilkie will continue leading the VA, the second-largest federal agency with more than 375,000 employees and a nearly $200 billion budget.

When Trump announced Jackson’s nomination in March, the response from the veteran community was resounding uncertainty.

“We don’t know this guy,” AMVETS Executive Director Joe Chenelly said at the time.

The reaction to Wilkie’s nomination Friday was more positive. Many veterans and advocates in Washington know him, and they like him.

“The acting secretary has taken it upon himself to work closely with the [veterans service organizations] to better understand the needs facing our nation’s heroes,” Disabled American Veterans said in a prepared statement. “With more than a decade of service as an undersecretary for the Department of Defense, Mr. Wilkie has considerable experience navigating federal government policies.”

In March, Wilkie, 55, walked into an agency reeling from Shulkin’s firing and the months of chaos and infighting that led up to it. Garry Augustine, director of DAV, said Wilkie “stabilized things.”

Some advocates have raised concerns about the number of VA leaders leaving the agency since Shulkin was fired. The most public exits in recent weeks include Scott Blackburn, VA chief information officer, Dr. Amy Fahrenkopf, acting deputy undersecretary for health for community care, and Dr. Christopher Vojta, principal deputy undersecretary for health.

VA employees who have left since Shulkin’s firing were “wedded to the status quo and not on board with this administration’s policies or pace of change,” agency spokesman Curt Cashour said.

Major veterans organizations have sought to end what they’ve described as a “tumultuous chapter” at the VA that began before Shulkin was fired.

They want a permanent leader in place, and they asked the Senate on Friday for a speedy confirmation.

“The VA has been without Senate-confirmed secretary for 51 days, and we urge the Senate to schedule a confirmation hearing quickly,” said American Legion Commander Denise Rohan in a prepared statement. “The department deserves strong, competent leadership at every level to ensure our veterans receive the benefits they so richly deserve for their selfless service to our great nation.”

The timeline of Wilkie’s confirmation process was uncertain Friday. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said he looks forward “to sitting down with him again to have an in-depth conversation about his vision and plan for the VA.”

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the committee chairman, said he wanted to learn more about Wilkie’s long-term plans for the VA.

In April, the VA released a list of Wilkie’s priorities as acting secretary that included working with Congress to pass the VA Mission Act, major reforms that would increase private-sector medical care, among other changes. The House approved the bill Wednesday by a vote of 347-70, and the Senate is scheduled to vote on it next week.

On Thursday, Wilkie signed a $10 billion contract with Cerner Corp. in Missouri to overhaul the VA’s electronic health record system – a plan that began in June under Shulkin.

Also Thursday, Wilkie appeared before the White House press corps for the first time to accept a $100,000 check – Trump’s first-quarter salary that he donated to the VA Caregivers Support Program. Wilkie said he was “deeply, deeply grateful… for the opportunity to serve America’s veterans.”

His main goal, the VA said last month, was to “restore regular order” at the agency “by working closely with the White House to implement the president’s priorities.”

There were some reservations Friday about Wilkie’s nomination. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America wants to ensure Wilkie stands against “privatization” of the agency. Many groups worry that an aggressive expansion of veterans’ care into the private sector will erode VA resources and eventually dismantle the agency. Shulkin blamed his ouster on White House insiders working at the VA who saw him as an obstacle to privatization.

“We look forward to seeing if Wilkie plans to expand privatization at VA, which veterans nationwide continue to overwhelmingly oppose,” IAVA founder Paul Rieckhoff said in a prepared statement. “Most of all, we look forward to a rigorous confirmation hearing and public vetting.”

If confirmed, Wilkie will be the seventh VA secretary since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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