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Trump picks Obama appointee to lead Veterans Affairs. Has he cooled on his plan to overhaul it?

Ari Sonnenberg is an Iraq war veteran who struggled to get benefits from the VA. (Rick Loomis/LAT)
Ari Sonnenberg is an Iraq war veteran who struggled to get benefits from the VA. (Rick Loomis/LAT)

On a day Washington is focused on the people Donald Trump has picked to help him upend much of the federal government, Trump made a surprise announcement signaling there is one large part of the bureaucracy he may be less eager to overhaul than he has let on.

Trump named a high-ranking Obama administration official to run the sprawling Department of Veterans Affairs.

Trump’s announcement that he has chosen for the post David Shulkin, currently the undersecretary at the department, came as a shock to veterans groups and represented a considerable setback to the network of nonprofits funded by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. Trump had earlier left the impression he would be cleaning house at the department in favor of a free-market approach favored by the Koch organizations that could shift a considerable amount of the care provided by VA facilities over to the private sector.

Shulkin has been an outspoken critic of such an approach, making him a favorite target of the  Koch-funded nonprofit Concerned Veterans for America. In a blog post in April, the group characterized Shulkin’s performance taking questions from a congressional committee as a “show of incompetence” and reflective of “what’s wrong with the VA.”

But Trump, who embraced much of the Koch-backed organization’s reform plan during the campaign, passed over contenders for the VA post who favored the blueprint championed by Concerned Veterans for America. Trump appears to have balked amid warnings from mainstream veterans groups representing millions of former soldiers against abandoning the reforms implemented by the Obama administration in favor of an approach more oriented toward privatization.

The organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said in a statement that of all the candidates for the post Trump considered, Shulkin represents the best hope of continuing with the Obama administration policies the organization favors. Shulkin would be the first secretary at the VA who is not himself a veteran. And he is the only person from the Obama administration that Trump has picked so far for a leadership role on his team. Another group, Veterans for Common Sense, said it was “relieved” by Trump’s pick of Shulkin.

Concerned Veterans executive director Mark Lucas said in a statement the group will continue to push its blueprint. “It is no secret that the VA has been failing veterans for years,” the statement said. “While Shulkin already holds a leadership position at the VA, as secretary, he will now have ultimate responsibility over the agency and we are hopeful he will take it in a new direction.”

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