WASHINGTON — With his job status in danger, embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin sought to lower his public profile Monday as a White House spokesman insisted that President Donald Trump still had confidence in his leadership “at this point in time.”
Shulkin, the lone Obama administration official in Trump’s Cabinet, abruptly backed out of a media availability Monday morning that had been scheduled at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Elsmere, Delaware, as part of an annual Veterans Summit hosted by Democratic Sen. Tom Carper. Shulkin told organizers he needed to “get back on the road to Washington.”
“Secretary Shulkin’s singular focus is on finding the best ways to provide care and benefits to our country’s heroes,” said Shulkin’s strategic adviser, Ashleigh Barry, in response to questions about his public plans in the coming days.
Since a travel scandal broke on Wednesday, VA leadership has been embroiled in internal political fights that could result in the ousting of more top department leaders.
Three administration officials told The Associated Press that Trump is planning to oust Shulkin within the next week or two amid an extraordinary rebellion at the agency and damaging government investigations into his alleged spending abuses. The three officials demanded anonymity to discuss a sensitive personnel matter.
Early Monday, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley sought to dismiss reports of Shulkin’s imminent dismissal as head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the government’s second largest department with 370,000 employees. He told Fox News Channel, “we hear these types of rumors every day.”
“At this point in time, though he does have confidence in Dr. Shulkin,” Gidley said. “But as you know, the president wants to put the right people in the right place at the right time and that could change.”
Asked repeatedly Monday about Shulkin’s status, White House spokesman Raj Shah told reporters there were “no personnel announcements to make at this time.” Addressing Trump’s relationship with Shulkin, Shah said: “I haven’t asked the president about it today so I don’t want to comment on it too specifically.”
Shulkin’s fate has remained in doubt following a blistering report by VA’s internal watchdog in February that found he had improperly accepted Wimbledon tennis tickets and his staff had doctored emails to justify his wife traveling to Europe with him at taxpayer expense. Earlier this month, two people familiar with the White House discussions told the AP that Trump increasingly viewed Shulkin as a distraction as the White House floated the names of possible candidates to replace him, including conservative “Fox & Friends” contributor Pete Hegseth.
A separate VA watchdog investigation, due out in the coming weeks, is also looking into a complaint that Shulkin asked his security detail to accompany him to a Home Depot store and cart furniture items, according to two people familiar with the allegation who requested anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
Last week, as replacement rumors swirled around him, Shulkin did not appear at a major veterans’ event Friday held at the White House to preview a film. Shulkin typically is a regular presence at veterans’ events in Washington, raising some questions among the more than 100 veterans in attendance on Friday about his job status.
Joe Chenelly, national executive director of AMVETS, said he worries that a lack of clarity from the White House on Shulkin’s future was hurting veterans’ care. Several major veterans’ organizations were largely standing behind Shulkin as the best guardian of VA amid a planned overhaul of the Veterans Choice program, a Trump campaign priority aimed at expanding private care outside the VA system.
“Saying there are no changes ‘at this point’ each time does not provide the stabilizing moment the Trump administration needs to keep its veterans issues agenda strong,” Chenelly said.
The White House has been actively vetting roughly half a dozen candidates who could replace Shulkin amid his ongoing ethics troubles, according to one person familiar with the White House discussions.
The potential replacements include Hegseth, a former military officer and former CEO of the conservative Concerned Veterans for America; former Rep. Jeff Miller, who had been chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee; retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg; Michael Kussman, a former VA undersecretary of health; Toby Cosgrove, a former president and CEO of the Cleveland Clinic; and Leo Mackay Jr., a former VA deputy secretary who is now senior vice president at Lockheed Martin Corp.
In the event of Shulkin’s departure, deputy VA secretary Tom Bowman would serve as acting head of the VA until a nominee is confirmed by the Senate. Bowman has also come under criticism at the White House for being too moderate to push Trump’s agenda of fixing veterans’ care.
The department provides medical care and other benefits to 9 million military veterans in more than 1,700 health facilities around the U.S.
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.