WASHINGTON — For now, the coup attempt at the Department of Veterans Affairs appears over.
Veterans groups are receiving assurances from administration officials that VA Secretary David Shulkin’s job is not in jeopardy following an explosive inspector general’s report one week ago and a subsequent revolt from political appointees within his department.
White House officials have not offered formal comment on the matter beyond White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders saying on Tuesday that she has no indication that President Donald Trump has lost faith in Shulkin.
In an interview with USA Today after that press conference, Shulkin said he has received assurances that he would remain in his Cabinet post. “I’m the secretary, I’m in charge of carrying out the president’s agenda, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do,” he said.
American Legion Executive Director Verna Jones said her organization has been told that Shulkin’s job is safe, and her organization is moving ahead under the assumption that they will be working with him as before on policy and legislative issues in the weeks ahead.
“I don’t think our confidence in his ability to work on these issues has dropped that much,” she told reporters on Wednesday. “There are still some people within VA who don’t need to be there, and he will have to deal with that.”
Shulkin has said numerous times since the release of the report that he has concerns with individuals within his department who are not focused “on the best interests of veterans,” and promised to address those issues.
On Tuesday, he told Politico that his new chief of staff, Peter O’Rourke, is conducting interviews with staffers involved in “subversion” at the department to determine what their future is at VA.
The VA secretary has been in a public fight with White House officials and his own communications staff since the inspector general’s findings were released. The report accused him of multiple improprieties during an overseas trip last July, including improperly accepting Wimbledon tickets from an English businesswoman and using taxpayer dollars to pay for his wife’s airfare.
Shulkin has suggested that his previous chief of staff’s emails were hacked as part of the scandal, and had his own statements responding to the allegations removed from the official VA website by his communications staff, at the direction of White House lawyers.
At the same time, an email from White House adviser Jake Leinenkugel surfaced recommending action against several Shulkin confidants to put the secretary “on notice” that he needed to fall in line with other administration officials’ priorities.
So far, the only high-level staffing change at the department was the resignation of O’Rourke’s predecessor, Vivieca Wright Simpson, who was criticized in the IG report. But outside advocates say they expect more in coming days.
In a statement late last week, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Tim Walz, D-Minn., blamed the internal divisions on “the Koch brothers and corporate interests at the center of an effort to take over and privatize VA to make money.”
Officials at Disabled American Veterans criticized “special interest groups who openly advocate shrinking and dismantling the VA” within Trump’s administration and urged lawmakers and the White House to help get rid of those elements within the department.
Shulkin, 59, was among the last nominees for Trump’s leadership team at the start of his presidency but also saw the easiest confirmation. No lawmakers on Capitol Hill raised concerns about the then-VA undersecretary for health, and he was approved by the Senate with a 100-0 vote (a show of support that Trump often invoked in public events with Shulkin.)
Although he was the only holdover in Trump’s Cabinet from former President Barack Obama’s administration, Shulkin received effusive praise through most of 2017 from the president.
On several occasions Trump invited Shulkin to high-profile events and bill signings to underscore his message of change and progress at VA headquarters. Shulkin briefed reporters in the White House press room directly three times, an unheard of move in the previous administration.
Just last month, Trump lauded Shulkin during an Oval Office ceremony for “the greatest strides ever made at the VA for our veterans, and it’s not even close.”
Shulkin told Military Times last week he is hopeful he can return to that kind of progress in the weeks to come, after putting the travel scandal and other internal conflicts in the past.
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.