WASHINGTON — In the first 36 hours after he was fired by President Donald Trump via Twitter, former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin penned a lengthy op-ed for the New York Times, had interviews with six national television shows and “publicly vowed to continue to speak out against those who seek to harm the VA.”
Among the high-profile dismissals in the Trump administration in recent months, that makes him an outlier. Most, including former Cabinet secretaries Tom Price and Rex Tillerson, have stayed out of the spotlight in their post-government lives.
But Shulkin during his tenure was far less camera shy than many in Trump’s leadership team, hosting several White House press conferences on veterans issues and often engaging with beat reporters with little oversight or input from his communications team. That approach, which caused friction with other administration officials in recent weeks, appears to be continuing now.
Here’s what we’ve learned so far from Shulkin’s media blitz:
** He’s still angry at political opponents in the White House
In nearly every appearance, Shulkin blamed his firing largely on political operatives within the administration who are pushing for increased private-sector medical care access for veterans.
During his tenure, Shulkin bristled at accusations that his policies amounted to “privatization” of VA services. Now, he is freely using the term to attack those opponents.
“A number of political appointees within VA are pushing to privatize much faster than I think is in the interest of veterans and is the safe way to care for our veterans,” Shulkin said during a Fox News appearance on Thursday evening. “I’ve stood up to them because I was in Washington and I was working for the president on behalf of our veterans.”
** He isn’t attacking the president
Shulkin has several complaints about how he was treated by Trump — he said in an MSNBC interview that the president spoke with him hours before his firing and didn’t hint at any problems — but he has also been muted in directly criticizing the commander-in-chief.
In a PBS interview Thursday, Shulkin said that while he was disappointed in Trump’s decision, he blamed it on poor communication and misdirection from other officials.
“I think that the political chaos just got to be so much, that the president felt that he needed to go in a different direction,” he said.
In nearly every appearance, Shulkin said he remains convinced that Trump is dedicated to reforming VA, and upset he couldn’t get it done during his time leading the administration.
** He is offering support for his replacement
While the president’s choice for the next VA Secretary — Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the current White House physician — has drawn surprise and concern from many on Capitol Hill, Shulkin isn’t among the critics.
Shulkin, who is also a practicing physician, said he has worked closely with Jackson in the past and praised him as “an honorable man” and “a great patriot.”
“This is a tough job, and I think anyone who is going to step in is going to need a lot of help to get it done,” he said on ABC’s Good Morning America on Friday. “And I’ll do everything I can to make sure he succeeds.”
But, during his PBS appearance, Shulkin confirmed that he has never spoken with Jackson about “his policy or political issues” concerning VA.
** He isn’t sorry about his travel scandal
Shulkin has repeatedly complained that the 10-day European trip that was the subject of a scathing inspector general investigation has been exaggerated and mischaracterized, and he intends to continue speaking out on that issue too.
“There was nothing improper about this trip,” he told NPR on Wednesday. “And I was not allowed to put up an official statement or to even respond to this by the White House, who told me that they didn’t want me responding. So I think that this was really just being used in a political context to try to make sure that I wasn’t as effective as a leader moving forward.”
Shulkin told CNN on Thursday night that the entire trip, including using taxpayer funds for his wife’s airfare and accepting Wimbledon tennis tickets from an English businesswoman “was all pre-approved … and when the inspector general six months later had concerns, I wrote a check to the government.”
The former VA secretary did refund the money, but only after the full report was released. And investigators have disputed Shulkin’s claims of clearances from the ethics office, saying those officials reviewed only a small portion of the trip itinerary, and were given incorrect information.
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.