Robert Wilkie, at a Senate hearing in November, 2017. Wilkie was tapped to serve as acting secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs in the wake of David Shulkin's firing on March 28, 2018. However, some veterans groups are calling for Wilkie's removal as interim leader.

Robert Wilkie, at a Senate hearing in November, 2017. Wilkie was tapped to serve as acting secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs in the wake of David Shulkin's firing on March 28, 2018. However, some veterans groups are calling for Wilkie's removal as interim leader. ( Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — A large, national veterans organization is calling on President Donald Trump to remove new acting Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie amid confusion over who should be running the agency legally.

The group American Veterans, better known as AMVETS, sent a letter to Trump on Tuesday, urging him to send Wilkie back to the Defense Department and name VA Deputy Secretary Tom Bowman as the agency’s interim leader.

“We need someone who can keep things moving forward,” said Joe Chenelly, executive director of AMVETS. “This needs to happen now. Tom Bowman is clearly qualified in a lot of different ways to serve as interim.”

Bowman taking the helm at the VA is “what the law calls for,” Chenelly added.

Trump announced Wednesday in a tweet that he selected Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the White House physician, to replace former VA Secretary David Shulkin.

Trump tapped Wilkie to lead the VA during Jackson’s confirmation process, bypassing Bowman, who was next in succession. That decision has come under scrutiny in the last few days.

The Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 gives a president broad authority to temporarily fill an agency job if the officeholder “dies, resigns, or is otherwise unable to perform the functions and duties of office.” The law doesn’t explicitly state whether it applies when someone is fired.

The White House and Shulkin have offered differing accounts of whether he was fired or resigned.

A White House spokeswoman told Politico that Shulkin resigned.

However, soon after Trump announced Shulkin’s departure Wednesday, the former secretary began speaking out – first with a commentary in the New York Times, and then on major news networks. He told CNN that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly called him Wednesday to let him know Trump would be sending a message on Twitter. Shulkin said he was then fired by tweet.

On NBC’s Meet the Press, Shulkin said Sunday that he did not submit a letter of resignation, nor was one requested.

“I came to the VA to fight for our veterans, and I had no intention of giving up,” Shulkin said. “I had no reason to resign. I made a commitment.”

The back-and-forth could present legal challenges if Wilkie remains as acting secretary.

That aside, Chenelly said his group wants someone with experience at the VA to be in charge during the leadership transition at the agency.

Before being named as deputy secretary, Bowman worked as staff director for the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and held leadership positions across the VA, including chief of staff. Since August, he’s been responsible for daily operations at the VA – the second-largest agency in the federal government.

It was rumored earlier this year that Bowman could be fired, as a rift grew between White House insiders at the VA and Shulkin and his staff. Opponents of Shulkin saw Bowman as standing in the way of major reform.

Chenelly described Wilkie as a “big question mark.” He previously worked as undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness and was once a senior adviser to Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.

“We’re worried that you could end up having someone who’s never gone before the Senate on veterans issues before running the VA for a long period of time, and no one really knows him,” Chenelly said.

Disabled American Veterans has also questioned Wilkie’s experience. In a statement following Trump’s announcement Wednesday, DAV said he “has no background in health care and no apparent experience working in or with the department.”

Wilkie could serve as acting secretary for an extended period, as Jackson is likely to face an arduous confirmation process.

Jackson’s experience also has been the subject of concern among some lawmakers and leaders of veterans groups who worry he lacks the management experience to take on widespread challenges at the VA. The extent of his work on veterans issues is also unknown.

It was uncertain Tuesday when Jackson might go before the Senate for a confirmation hearing. The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee is waiting on paperwork from Jackson and the White House, which they need before moving forward, said Amanda Maddox, spokeswoman for Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the chairman of the committee.

“We’re not at a point that we can even begin to guess when a confirmation hearing might take place,” Maddox said. “The timing of the confirmation hearing will be determined by how long it takes the nominee to get everything finalized and back to us.”

Some veterans groups, including AMVETS, have expressed concerns over a “leadership vacuum” at the VA that worsened with Shulkin’s departure.

The agency’s vast health care system is being led by an acting undersecretary of health and the job of undersecretary of benefits has been without a permanent leader since October 2015. On Feb. 22, Trump nominated longtime management consultant Paul Lawrence to take over as undersecretary of benefits, but Lawrence has yet to face senators at a confirmation hearing.

“This vacuum makes it more important that the person at the helm right now is someone who knows the VA and what needs to be done,” Chenelly said. 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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