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Wilkie won’t resign as VA secretary after Capitol riot

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 8, 2021

WASHINGTON – Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie won’t resign in the aftermath of the takeover of the U.S. Capitol building, the agency said Friday.

Two of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet members – Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Transportation Elaine Chao – stepped down Thursday. In their resignation letters, they condemned the attack at the Capitol, which happened as Congress was certifying President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College win. A mob of Trump supporters smashed through security and breached the Capitol.

The secretaries blamed Trump for using rhetoric that fueled the mob to storm the Capitol. Trump urged his supporters to travel to Washington for a “Save America” rally. In a speech Wednesday, he told them to march on the Capitol building to express their anger at the voting process.

“There is no mistaking the impact your rhetoric had on the situation, and it is the inflection point for me,” DeVos wrote to Trump.

In addition to DeVos and Chao, several White House staff have resigned in the wake of the attack, including Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s chief of staff, and Matt Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser, among others.

Wilkie has no plans to join the ever-growing list of resignations, said VA Press Secretary Christina Noel.

“Secretary Wilkie has led VA to achieve landmark improvements in veterans’ trust, quality of care and employee satisfaction,” Noel said in an email. “He will continue to lead the department, including its historic response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Wilkie was the last of Trump’s Cabinet secretaries to condemn the actions at the Capitol. He sent a short tweet Friday morning, which said: “Our veterans fought to defend the freedoms that were attacked this week. The assault on the Capitol is an affront to all who have worn the uniform.”

Noel told multiple reporters that Wilkie’s delay to condemn the attack was because the secretary spent Thursday touring VA facilities in Louisiana that had been damaged by hurricanes in 2020.

Before the invasion of the Capitol, Wilkie was already facing pressure to resign. The country’s largest veterans’ organizations called on him to resign in December, and then – when he didn’t – they asked Trump to fire him.

The calls for his ouster came after the VA Inspector General’s Office reported Wilkie and his senior staff ignored problems of sexual harassment at the Washington VA Medical Center and attempted to discredit a congressional aide who claimed she was sexually assaulted at the facility.

American Legion, AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Vietnam Veterans of America wrote to Trump in mid-December, saying Wilkie “no longer has the trust or confidence of America’s veterans and should be removed.”

Democratic lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Mark Takano, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, also called for Wilkie to step down in December. Takano renewed that call Friday, citing Wilkie’s lack of response to the takeover of the Capitol building.

In a statement, Takano said resigning was Wilkie’s “only honorable option left.” He criticized Wilkie for not invoking the 25th Amendment, which includes a never-used mechanism for a vice president and a majority of the Cabinet to seize control from a president.

Trump has only two weeks left in office, but Democratic lawmakers, as well as former federal officials and at least one Republican House member, have demanded his immediate removal.

“Secretary Wilkie, Wednesday’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol wasn’t just an affront to our veterans and those who’ve worn the uniform, it was an attack on our democracy,” Takano said. “In the days that followed the assault on the U.S. Capitol, you failed to join those urging that the 25th Amendment be invoked to remove a president that has shown himself to be unfit for office, instead taking to social media to issue a measly two sentence statement that remained silent on the president’s seditious actions.”

Wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling