The White House on Thursday refused to directly say if Veterans Secretary David Shulkin will stay in his post, as the VA chief tried to reassure lawmakers that he remains the right person to carry out Trump Administration plans to improve the quality of care at the VA.
“I’ve pubilcly acknowledged that the distraction that has happened is something I deeply regret,” Shulkin told a House panel on Thursday, as the first question at a budget hearing was about persistent news reports of palace intrigue at the VA.
“I do feel that I have to acknowledge the proverbial elephant in the room,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), who pressed Shulkin on reports that Shulkin’s own staffers were at times pitted against him in a fight with the White House over private care for veterans.
“I’ve come here for one reason, and that’s to improve the lives of veterans,” Shulkin said, saying ‘others’ were more interested in playing politics than getting the job done.
Both before the hearing on Capitol Hill – and after – Shulkin refused to answer questions from reporters about his future in the job.
When the question was posed to the White House a few hours later, there was not a direct answer on the VA Secretary’s job security.
“I don’t have any personnel announcements,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, as she stressed that the Trump Administration was looking for the right mix of people and policies at the VA.
For much of the President’s first year in office, Mr. Trump was a very public fan of Shulkin, and his efforts to foster change at the VA.
“I’d like to begin by thanking Secretary David Shulkin for the incredible progress that he’s making at the VA, tremendous strides,” the President said in August of 2017 at a veterans event in the White House.
But in recent months behind the scenes, Shulkin – who was a top holdover from the Obama Administration – has been in a pitched battle with officials at the VA, even reportedly fighting with his chief spokesman, mainly over the direction that the VA should go in how much health care for veterans should be shifted away from VA facilities and to private doctors, what’s known as Veterans Choice.
Add to that, an internal watchdog report criticized Shulkin for how he got the VA to pick up some of the travel costs of his wife, who joined Shulkin on a 10-day government trip to Europe last summer.
The inspector general report also found that Shulkin wrongly accepted a gift of tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament, that a VA employee was basically used by Shulkin as a “personal travel concierge to plan tourist activities,” and that not enough documents were ever turned over to investigators to figure out the true cost of the trip to the VA.
In a mid-February hearing, Shulkin defended the trip but admitted, “I do recognize the optics of this are not good.”
For now, Shulkin is still the Veterans Secretary – but there wasn’t much in the way of a public vote of confidence in him from the White House in recent days.