Top Trump officials haven’t offered any updates on the VA secretary search this week, except for general comments about ongoing work by transition teams.
Next week, the Senate is expected to hold confirmation hearings for seven Cabinet nominees, including would-be Defense Secretary James Mattis and would-be Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, both Marine Corps veterans.
Those events are part of the lengthy Senate approval process for Trump’s inner circle, work that started for most top positions in early December to ensure the new Cabinet members could start work shortly after Trump takes office.
But no such nominee has been named for the Department of Veterans Affairs, leaving serious questions about who will oversee operations in coming weeks at the $180 billion, 365,000-employee bureaucracy charged with caring for millions of veterans.
Transition team members have begun voicing concerns that the uncertainty surrounding the top VA job could kill any chance for real department changes in the near future, given the number of other lower-level appointments that have been put on hold as a result, according to sources connected to the work.
News reports say similar problems are growing within Trump’s Defense Department as well.
On Friday, the Washington Post reported that Mattis has sparred with transition team members over potential candidates for several unfilled posts, including service secretaries and key deputy jobs. So far, only the only prominent defense name to be announced since Mattis’ pick in early December has been Vincent Viola, to be secretary of the Army.
It’s unclear who will take over those roles post-inauguration if new nominees aren’t being vetted by the Senate soon.
Trump officials did not respond to requests about whether plans have been made for an interim secretary appointment, or if a deal is in place with Senate officials for a faster-than-normal confirmation process for the to-be-named VA secretary nominee.
Current VA Secretary Bob McDonald, a Republican nominated by President Barack Obama is 2014, has not been contacted by Trump or other top officials about staying on in the leadership role past Jan. 20.
This week, Trump met in New York with Leo MacKay Jr., an executive at Lockheed Martin who served as a VA deputy secretary in the early 2000s, to discuss the top department job.
Spokesmen for Trump have also said that Fox News host Pete Hegseth, former president of the conservative advocacy group Concerned Veterans for America, and former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown remain top contenders for the job. A pair of healthcare executives withdrew their names from consideration late last month.
Veterans groups have requested meetings with Trump to discuss their picks for the job and their concerns over the delay, but so far have been unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, Democratic critics are blasting Trump for already faltering on his campaign promises to improving care and services for veterans.
“After putting veterans at the center of his campaign, it’s disheartening to see the VA secretary position go unfilled for so long,” said Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., who served as acting ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee last year.
“Veterans cannot afford a lapse in leadership at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which will slow the progress VA is making. Perhaps the president-elect is realizing that it’s difficult to recruit talented people to lead the VA when you demonize the men and women who work there.”
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. and ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said he is “very concerned” by the delay.
“If he needs more counsel before making this important decision, he should start by personally sitting down with our nation’s veterans service organizations,” he said. “Every day he continues to delay his decision, he jeopardizes the seamless transition that is needed to ensure this nation fulfills its commitment to the brave men and women who served.”
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.