WASHINGTON — Former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said in an interview with Military Times Friday that he bears no ill-will toward President Donald Trump for not firing him personally this week, instead opting to make the announcement over Twitter.
But he is vowing to continue to speak out against what he sees as “injustices” at the department and within the administration.
“Clearly there are unwritten rules about when you can and can’t push back against the way Washington does things,” Shulkin said. “But when I see injustices, I have to speak out against them.
“That’s why I spoke out against the [white supremacist] protests in Charlotte [last summer]. That’s why I reacted so strongly to the inspector general report [criticizing an overseas VA trip] that attacked my family. And it’s why I am speaking out now about problems in VA.
“If I don’t continue to speak out on behalf of veterans and VA employees, who is going to?”
Shulkin, who served as VA secretary for 14 months, was fired on Wednesday after nearly two months of controversy stemming from that inspector general report, which accused him of ethics violations for using taxpayer funds to pay for his wife’s airfare and accepting free Wimbledon tennis tickets from an English businesswoman.
But Shulkin insists that controversy was exaggerated by political operatives within the Trump administration working to undermine his moderate reform agenda and instead privatize large sections of VA health care. In multiple media interviews since his dismissal, he has warned against those special interests and portrayed himself as a political victim.
In his interview with Military Times, Shulkin said that “it’s up for your readers to decide” whether Trump’s decision not to fire him directly was appropriate.
“If the president thinks a new secretary and a new leadership team will come in with a different approach and be more successful, then I support that,” Shulkin said. “When he said he was frustrated with the pace of reform, I agreed with him. This was not about me. This was about improving VA.”
But he also warned that those changes cannot come without acknowledgement of the influence of special interests within the White House and VA.
“I certainly hope there will continue to be people out there who want to serve and believe it is worth it to help veterans,” he said. “There are still many passionate, optimistic people who are willing to fight.
“But if my experience is a discouragement to them, then I really am fearful for VA.”
Shulkin has said he was not given support by the White House to refute problems with the inspector general report, and that media outlets ignored that he paid back the disputed funds (days after the report release, but months after the Washington Post first made public trip details).
“Washington is a hard environment to work in, and it shouldn’t be this hard to serve your country,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to face false allegations, to have your family drug through this.”
Echoing his comments from recent weeks, Shulkin said he hopes ongoing questions about the travel scandal don’t overshadow larger reform issues at the department.
“I’m still optimistic that Congress can bring our community care plans across the finish line,” he said. “There are a lot of good people still focused on helping veterans. I just really want this department to succeed.”
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.