Trump picks Robert Wilkie to head Veterans Affairs
Washington – President Donald Trump said Friday he has chosen Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie to permanently lead the beleaguered department, a surprise announcement that appeared to catch Wilkie off guard.
Wilkie, a former Pentagon undersecretary for personnel and readiness, has led the department since Trump fired David Shulkin in March amid an ethics scandal and mounting rebellion within the building.
Trump revealed his decision during a prison reform event at the White House, and said it was a surprise to Wilkie. “He doesn’t know this yet – that we’re going to be putting his name up for nomination to be secretary of the veterans’ administration,” Trump said.
Trump previously nominated White House physician Dr. Ronny Jackson, but Jackson abruptly withdrew last month.
Wilkie, 56, oversaw a new Pentagon policy aimed at stemming harassment in the military after an online nude-photo sharing scandal rocked the Marine Corps. He was confirmed unanimously as Pentagon undersecretary by the Senate.
As acting VA secretary, Wilkie has sought to rebuild morale at a department beset with inner turmoil and rebellion over Trump’s push to expand private care. On Thursday, he announced a major $10 billion contract with Cerner Corp. to overhaul electronic health records for millions of veterans, a 10-year project that aims to improve mental health care and ease access to private providers.
Wilkie’s selection reflects Trump’s desire to have a steady hand leading the government’s second-largest department following the abrupt withdrawal by Jackson, who had no experience managing a large workforce. At the Pentagon, Wilkie led the government’s largest department with more than 700,000 employees.
Veterans groups expressed support for Wilkie’s nomination.
“We’re optimistic that we’ll be able to work with him and his staff,” Garry Augustine, executive director of Disabled American Veterans’ Washington headquarters, said in an interview. “He seems to be a quick learner. He’s doing what he needs to do to get up to speed.”
Dan Caldwell, executive director of the conservative Concerned Veterans for America, praised Wilkie as an “outstanding choice.”
“He is somebody who has shown that he can manage the department in a time of immense change,” Caldwell said. “He unequivocally supports the president’s agenda for reforming the VA and we think that he will be on the same page as the White House.”
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said he enjoyed working with Wilkie in his acting capacity and wants details on how he would implement legislation to expand private medical care for veterans as well as his “long-term views for the VA.”
Trump has been seeking an aggressive expansion of the Choice private-sector program to make it easier for veterans to see private doctors outside the VA system at government expense. A proposal is nearing passage in Congress, but its scope will be determined in part on how the next VA secretary implements provisions that loosen restrictions on when a veteran can see a private doctor if they feel dissatisfied with VA health care.
The VA faces numerous problems demanding immediate attention, including a multibillion-dollar revamp of electronic medical records, now in limbo, that lawmakers fear will prove too costly and wasteful, and a pending budget shortfall in the Choice program. The Senate is slated to vote next week on a wide-ranging bill that would give veterans more freedom to see doctors outside the VA health system and fill the budget shortfall, a major step toward fulfilling Trump’s promise to expand private care for veterans.
Wilkie, an Air Force and Navy veteran, had the strong backing of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and White House chief of staff John Kelly. He was seen as a skilled manager with defense expertise, over other candidates who had more political experience, such as former Rep. Jeff Miller, who had chaired the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
The son of an Army artillery commander, Wilkie spent his childhood at Fort Bragg and served under President George W. Bush as an assistant secretary of defense. He was the youngest senior leader in the department. He also served as senior adviser to Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., before being named a Pentagon undersecretary in 2017.
In contrast, Jackson’s nomination to replace Shulkin surprised veterans groups. He was a career military doctor who lacked significant management experience. While Jackson was well-liked in Washington and drew praise from Obama administration officials he’d treated, even many Republicans were skeptical of his ability to lead the VA.
After Jackson withdrew, White House officials said Trump planned to interview and vet his next nominee more thoroughly. Wilkie was among several candidates White House staff interviewed.
The president had indicated he intended to pick someone with a more political background for the role, hoping such a person would better navigate the turbulent confirmation process in a narrowly divided Senate. Wilkie has experience shepherding two defense secretaries through Senate confirmation.
Associated Press writers Ken Thomas and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.