Amid talks of replacement, VA Secretary Shulkin reaffirms commitment to the job
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 15, 2018
WASHINGTON — Embattled Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin on Thursday brushed off reports of his possible firing as distractions and told House lawmakers that he’s committed to his work at the VA.
The abrupt firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday triggered multiple news reports about who was President Donald Trump’s next target. Shulkin’s name quickly rose to the top of the list, and by Wednesday, news reports named candidates being considered to replace him as VA chief.
But as scheduled Thursday, Shulkin testified to a House Appropriations subcommittee about his budget priorities for fiscal 2019, speaking for two hours about various, long-term initiatives at the agency.
Shulkin’s future in the administration has been uncertain for the past month, since the VA inspector general released findings of ethical violations concerning an official trip Shulkin took with his wife to Europe in the summer. In the fallout, a rift over the direction of the VA emerged between Shulkin and White House insiders.
“I publicly acknowledged the distraction that has happened is something I deeply regret,” Shulkin told lawmakers Thursday. “I believe we are getting back on track, and I’m going to do my best to keep the focus on the work we need to do.”
Shulkin also acknowledged reports of an ongoing government audit of his alleged use of his security detail to run personal errands, as well as reports that he placed an armed guard outside his office at VA headquarters amid infighting with political appointees.
He told lawmakers that he didn’t want to go into detail about his security protocol but claimed it was no different than any other Cabinet members.
“My security detail assesses the risk and makes the decisions on how to best protect the Cabinet member,” Shulkin said. “I will tell you, every Cabinet member has a security detail that is armed. I’m no different.”
Shulkin didn’t take questions from reporters before or after Thursday’s hearing. He ignored shouted questions from reporters about whether he felt secure in his job.
During a news briefing aboard Air Force One on Wednesday, Raj Shah, principal deputy press secretary for the White House, said Trump “has confidence in his entire team” and refused to respond to a question about whether Shulkin would be replaced.
However, The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Trump has been angry with Shulkin and raised the idea of replacing him with Energy Secretary Rick Perry. The AP later reported Perry isn’t interested in the VA job.
It was also rumored Pete Hegseth could be a potential replacement, The AP reported. Hegseth, a Fox News contributor, was considered for the job when Trump took office last year. He’s the former CEO of Concerned Veterans for America – a group that is part of the Koch political network and has gained greater influence in Trump’s administration.
Most major veterans organizations want Shulkin to remain in the position. Some of the groups, including the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, rallied behind him in February, shortly after the IG’s findings were released. They argued a change in leadership at the VA would delay reform efforts at the agency. They also feared any potential replacement would take action to privatize veterans’ health care.
On Thursday, Joe Chenelly, director of the group AMVETS, wrote a commentary for USA Today, arguing Shulkin has made progress at the VA that Trump should want to continue.
“To make a leadership change at this point by removing Dr. Shulkin would be indefensible and, simply put, a bad business move,” Chenelly wrote. “Destabilizing the VA is no way to thank veterans for their service and should not be a legacy you want attached to your administration.”
Many lawmakers – Republicans and Democrats – have also expressed support for Shulkin in recent weeks.
“I very much enjoyed working with you when you were in the previous administration and now this administration,” Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., told Shulkin on Thursday. “Your expertise and experience in health care systems management is extraordinary, and I’m glad you’re in the job you’re in.”
Dent questioned Shulkin about his security detail and “palace intrigue” at the VA, which includes a split with his communications staff and White House advisers. It remained uncertain Thursday whether Shulkin had removed any of his staff.
“I made it clear to everybody in my department I have no tolerance for anything other than the business we have to do for VA,” Shulkin said.
Two lawmakers have actively sought Shulkin’s removal. Quickly after the IG report was released Feb. 14, Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., called for Shulkin’s immediate resignation. He followed up with a letter to Trump on Feb. 28, asking Shulkin be fired.
On Wednesday, Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., sent a letter to Trump stating he “lost faith” in Shulkin’s ability to lead.
“I call on Secretary Shulkin to resign and encourage the swift appointment and confirmation of new leadership that will give the VA the momentum it requires to overcome its systematic failures,” Biggs wrote.
A willing resignation from Shulkin seemed unlikely Thursday.
He started out his testimony by addressing the deadly shooting at the state veterans home in Yountville, Calif., where an Army veteran killed three women after taking them as hostages. One of the women, Jennifer Gonzales, was a VA psychologist. Shulkin said the situation should serve as a reminder to stay focused on veterans, not politics.
“With all of the distractions happening in Washington and happening in VA, the events of last week should remind us all about why it’s so important what we’re doing today in getting the VA back on track,” Shulkin said. “We are all saddened by this and just have to recommit ourselves to understanding how important this work is that we’re doing.”
U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies listens to testimony from VA Secretary David Shulkin during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, March 15, 2018. Dent told Shulkin, "your expertise and experience in health care systems management is extraordinary, and I’m glad you’re in the job you’re in."
CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES