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Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie at his Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee confirmation hearing on June 27, 2018.

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie at his Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee confirmation hearing on June 27, 2018. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON – Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie said Friday that he has begun forming a plan to cut the agency’s budget as President Donald Trump requested during a Cabinet meeting last month.

But Wilkie refused to go into specifics about his thoughts on reducing the VA’s budget, saying he had yet to share them with Trump.

“I have been asked to offer ideas,” Wilkie said during a lunch-time speech at the National Press Club. “I can’t tell you because I haven’t presented it to the president.”

Trump made the budget request of each secretary in his Cabinet during an October meeting, citing an increase in spending in his first two years as president. He told Cabinet secretaries to “get rid of the fat” and suggested the cuts could be as much as 5 percent of each department's budget.

Though Wilkie came up with ideas to reduce costs, he said he still believed next year’s budget could be bigger than the last one. In September, Congress appropriated $209 billion for the VA in fiscal year 2019, which began Oct. 1. The budget was another in a series of increases during the last decade for the agency, which had a spending plan of $90 billion in 2009.

“In the last presidential campaign, the president committed with everything he had to making sure the Department of Veterans Affairs was the most robust it’s ever been,” Wilkie said. “I am convinced that the budget that gets through both chambers will replace this last budget as the largest in our history.”

Wilkie was invited by the National Press Club to speak ahead of Veterans Day on Sunday. After a short speech, he took questions from the audience, which included reporters, VA employees and veterans advocates.

He answered one question about how he would handle a divided Congress.

As a result of the midterm elections Tuesday, Democrats will gain control of the House. It’s likely House Democrats will use their new subpoena power as an oversight tool on Trump and his Cabinet.

“I expect to answer more questions,” Wilkie said. “I believe in transparency. I believe in oversight.”

One issue a Democrat-controlled House might try to probe is the influence a trio of Trump cronies might have on the VA. Three members of Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private club in Palm Beach, Fla., were reported to have major influence over veterans policies.

To investigate, Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., requested copies of any correspondence between current and former VA employees and the three men: Marvel Entertainment Chairman Ike Perlmutter, lawyer Marc Sherman and Bruce Moskowitz, a Palm Beach doctor. He also asked for any records of VA employees traveling to Mar-a-Lago, along with the cost of each trip.

Wilkie responded in September, refusing to hand over the information.

On Friday, Wilkie criticized media reports that focused on agency issues prior to his leadership of the VA, which began in late July when he became secretary.

“I now have a 100-day record to defend,” he said. “I will defend it.”

Wentling.nikki@stripes.com 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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