Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie abruptly fired the second-highest department official on Monday, saying he had lost confidence in his ability to perform the job.
The stunning leadership shakeup comes less than five months after James Byrne was confirmed by the Senate for the VA deputy secretary job. In a two-sentence statement announcing the change, Wilkie gave no reason for his decision. The move was first reported by Axios.
Byrne, a Naval Academy graduate who deployed overseas as a Marine infantry officer and later joined the Department of Justice as an international narcotics prosecutor, served as the acting deputy secretary for almost 13 months before his confirmation last September.
The firing disrupts a recent stretch of leadership continuity at a department that has seen a host of firings and resignations in recent years.
Byrne’s predecessor, Thomas Bowman, was pressured out of the job a few months after the firing of former VA Secretary David Shulkin in March 2018. The department has had four different secretaries and four more acting secretaries in the last five years. VA’s top health official post has been vacant since President Donald Trump took office.
Byrne was confirmed to the post by an 81-11 Senate vote. At the time, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont., acknowledged that Byrne “has ruffled feathers among some here” in his dealings with Democratic lawmakers on implementation of the VA Mission Act and other department priorities.
But Tester said he supported Byrne because of his past work as acting deputy, and expressed confidence in his ability to serve in the permanent role.
Byrne also drew praise from numerous Republican senators on the committee and throughout the Senate.
In his confirmation hearing, Byrne told lawmakers that he was “extremely bullish” on the future of VA and the changes that Wilkie has made since his appointment to the job in summer 2018.
“I believe in where we are going, and I am frankly very eager to be confirmed so I can continue to help the secretary implement these and other important initiatives on behalf of our veterans,” he said.
In addition to his Justice Department posts, Byrne worked as an investigator with the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction before leaving government to work for the Lockheed Martin Corporation for several years. Both his father and sons have also served in the military.
White House officials had no comment on the firing. No immediate announcement was made by VA officials on who will serve as the acting deputy in Byrne’s absence.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.