Officials with President-elect Donald Trump's transition team downplayed concerns over uncertainty about over the Veterans Affairs secretary post on Thursday, saying they are taking great care to find the right person to lead reform efforts in the department.
"This is an area that he cares deeply about, reforming VA and making sure the person who comes in has the appropriate skill set to address the many challenges," said transition team spokesman Sean Spicer, communications director for the Republican National Committee. "This is an area near and dear to his heart."
Trump has announced his nominees for 13 of 15 Cabinet positions so far, a pace that transition officials say puts him ahead of any other president in American history.
The two secretary spots still without nominees are for the departments of the Agriculture and Veterans Affairs. Several nominees for other posts, including Energy Secretary Rick Perry for the Energy Department and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly for Homeland Security, had been rumored to be in the mix for the top veterans job.
In recent days, veterans groups have pushed for their preferred candidates -- including incumbent VA Secretary Bob McDonald -- but also expressed some dissatisfaction that the VA post appears to have slipped down on Trump's list of priorities.
"The search for VA has been unfocused at best," said Paul Rieckhoff, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "The President-elect has done little to dispel public reports of a startlingly wide range of candidates. Most disappointing, the President-elect still hasn't met with leading veterans groups or with current VA Sec Bob McDonald."
But Jason Miller, communications director for the transition team, insisted that the delay is a result of an extra attention on the position, not disinterest.
"This position is so important to make sure that we get right," he said. "Not only is there an unwieldy bureaucracy to deal with, but we're talking about the lives of people who have gone and sacrificed everything on behalf of this country.
"Our country has a debt and we need to repay them."
Miller said Trump is looking for a nominee who "understands the bureaucracy, someone who isn’t afraid to get in there and institute some strong reforms, and to make sure we’re delivering for veterans."
On Thursday, Trump was scheduled to have his second meeting in recent weeks with Pete Hegseth, a Fox News host and former CEO of Concerned Veterans for America. The conservative group has several connections to Trump’s transition team, but has frustrated major veterans groups with their radical reform proposals for the department.
Trump has also met with former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown about the post. McDonald and retiring House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., have also been rumored as names under consideration, but neither has had a formal meeting with the president-elect.
Officials from the six largest veterans groups have requested a face-to-face meeting with Trump to outline their priorities for the upcoming administration, and a coalition of 20 veterans groups earlier this week petitioned Trump to keep McDonald on to continue recent reform efforts at the department.
CVA officials on Thursday issued their own lengthy memo on McDonald’s "failed legacy" at VA, including lingering problems with VA wait times and benefits processing.
During the presidential campaign, Trump promised to appoint a VA secretary "whose sole purpose will be to serve veterans" and who can make sure "the needs of D.C. bureaucrats will no longer be placed above those of our veterans."
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.