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Veterans chief Shulkin has no intention of quitting

Hope Yen and Zeke Miller
Associated Press

Washington – Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, under fire for ethics violations, said Thursday that he has no intention of leaving his job even as his standing with President Donald Trump erodes and the White House floats names of possible replacements.

Speaking at a budget hearing, Shulkin expressed regret for “distractions” that have shifted attention from his efforts to fix veterans’ health care and pledged to put the government’s second largest department back on track.

He praised the congressional oversight committees for largely standing behind him to fix the Department of Veterans Affairs, compared to critics he said were “more interested in politics.”

“With all the distractions that are happening in Washington and all the distractions in VA, the events that happened should remind us all about why it’s important about what we’re doing in getting this budget right and VA on track,” he told a House appropriations subcommittee. “I came here for one reason and that is to improve the lives of veterans.”

Addressing a government investigation underway into his alleged use of security detail for personal errands, Shulkin denied that he was using the taxpayer-paid armed guards any differently from other members of the Trump Cabinet. “I publicly acknowledge the distraction is something I deeply regret,” he said.

Amid the controversies swirling around him, the White House in recent days has floated the name of Energy Secretary Rick Perry as a replacement and rumors circulated that conservative Fox and Friends contributor Pete Hegseth might be tapped for the job. Trump once seriously considered Hegseth, a former military office and former CEO of the conservative Concerned Veterans for America, for the position.

On Wednesday, Energy Secretary Rick Perry said he had no interest in becoming the next head of VA, flatly rejecting speculation that he would soon take over the position.

Two administration officials told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Shulkin’s position is precarious and that he could be out of a job within the week, but they cautioned that nothing was finalized. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive personnel matter.

A person familiar with Hegseth’s thinking told the AP late Wednesday that if offered the position, Hegseth would take a “hard look.” The person said that when Trump considered Hegseth for the post in late 2016 before settling on Shulkin, Hegseth told Trump he would “of course” accept and that Hegseth’s stance hasn’t changed. The source demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the private conversation.

Shulkin, a former Obama administration official, has faced several investigations over his travel and leadership of the department. Until recently, he had received praise from Trump for his work at the agency, but a raft of blistering VA watchdog reports detailing mismanagement and spending waste has weakened his standing.

The White House made clear Wednesday that Shulkin’s job was not safe.

In recent weeks, Shulkin has faced an insurgency within his department and now fresh allegations that he used a member of his security detail to run personal errands. On Tuesday, two people familiar with White House discussions told AP that Trump viewed Shulkin as a distraction and floated the notion of moving Perry to the VA. Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Tuesday.

Speaking after a Senate hearing Wednesday, Perry said he isn’t moving to VA and dismissed the reports as “fake news.”

“I am energy secretary from now until the foreseeable future. Happily,” he said.

Trump raised the idea with Perry on Monday but did not offer him the job, according to one White House official. Trump has been angry with Shulkin, the official said, but is known to float staffing changes without always following through.

The uncertainty over Shulkin’s status has left the government’s second largest department virtually paralyzed, with members of Congress confused over who’s in charge and what’s being done to improve care for 9 million military veterans in more than 1,700 government-run health facilities. For the most part, Republican and Democratic lawmakers are still standing behind Shulkin, viewing him as the department’s best guardian who would fend off Trump administration efforts to privatize VA care.

“The president needs to decide whether he is going to empower Secretary Shulkin to do his job,” said Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. “We need to know who’s calling the shots.”

“Dysfunction in the administration has hindered our ability to move forward,” he added.

Shulkin did not respond to requests for comment via phone and text message. He has been holding on to his job by a thread since a bruising internal report found ethics violations in connection with his trip to Europe with his wife last summer. A spokeswoman for Perry also had no comment.

The VA inspector general also is looking into a complaint by a member of Shulkin’s 24-7 security detail that he was asked to accompany the secretary to a Home Depot and carry furniture items into his home, according to two people familiar with the allegation who requested anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

Within the agency, a political adviser installed by Trump has openly mused to other VA staff about ousting the former Obama administration official. And a top communications aide has taken extended leave following a secret, failed attempt to turn lawmakers against him.

“The honeymoon is ending with a crash that hurts veterans most of all,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who has been a close observer of VA for more than a decade. “VA always has bad news, but Shulkin’s ethical and leadership failures are still significant – despite any internal attacks.”