Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie’s chief of staff will serve as the department’s second-ranking official after President Donald Trump tapped her for the work earlier this month.
Wilkie at the time said the firing was “a simple business decision” and a clash of personal styles, but individuals close to Byrne characterized it as part of a series of erratic leadership moves made by Wilkie amid leadership turmoil at the department.
VA leaders have downplayed the incident, but others see it as a shocking attack on a well-respected administrator.
VA officials said Powers’ move to the acting deputy secretary post happened on April 2, but the news was only made public via an announcement on Tuesday.
“Pam has quarterbacked VA’s historic transformation for the better part of the last two years,” Wilkie said in a statement. “Her deep experience and decisive leadership style will yield tremendous benefits for veterans and the department during this important time.”
Powers is a retired Air Force colonel who worked with Wilkie at the Pentagon’s personnel and readiness office before he was tapped to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.
She is the second woman to hold the second-highest post within VA, both in an acting capacity.
Whether she will be nominated for the permanent appointment remains unclear. That would require confirmation by the Senate, which is currently working on a remote, abbreviated schedule because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
A department insider says Robert Wilkie actively worked to discredit the woman, even as he publicly promised a fair investigation.
In addition, Trump has frequently left key leadership posts at different federal agencies open or filled with acting officials. Byrne served as acting deputy secretary for 8 months before Trump formally nominated him for the assignment, and his confirmation took almost five months more.
Powers’ appointment leaves acting officials in two of the department’s top five leadership posts. Richard Stone currently serves as Executive in Charge of the Veterans Health Administration, since the under secretary post there has been vacant since the start of Trump’s presidency.