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Veterans Affairs chief, once a Trump favorite, fights for his job over ethical lapses

Veterans Affairs chief, once a Trump favorite, fights for his job over ethical lapses
Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

David Shulkin is struggling to hold on to his job as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs as he grapples with allegations of ethical missteps and mismanagement, as well as political rivals inside and outside the Trump administration.

White House officials say President Trump has made no decision to replace Shulkin, a holdover from the Obama administration, but his tenure atop the second-largest federal department appears increasingly in doubt as Trump moves to shake up his Cabinet.

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In the last week, Trump has fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and named CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him. The president’s top economic advisor, Gary Cohn, quit after Trump announced tariffs that Cohn opposed, and the president then picked cable TV commentator Larry Kudlow to replace him.

White House aides said Thursday that Trump also had decided to push out H.R. McMaster as national security advisor, although the decision has not been announced and officials said Trump could wait for several weeks before acting. Other members of Trump’s team also are said to be in the crosshairs.

Shulkin, a physician, may be among the most vulnerable. He has clashed with underlings over the Veterans Choice program, a Trump campaign priority aimed at expanding government-paid private care for military veterans outside the VA system, according to several officials and veterans advocates.

“VA secretaries don’t have a very long shelf life, and Shulkin is in deep trouble,” said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonprofit group.

Shulkin was buffeted by an inspector general report last month that criticized a government-paid European trip he and his wife took last July that included free tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament. He is facing another inspector general inquiry into whether he used his security detail for personal errands and why he posted an armed guard outside his office.

The disarray has created a political quandary for Trump, who made helping veterans and improving VA services a major campaign priority. He faces growing pressure from conservatives who favor shifting to private-sector care at the massive agency, which has more than 200,000 employees and a budget of nearly $200 billion — after growing nearly 175 % in the last decade as veterans returned from post-Sept. 11 wars.

“I publicly acknowledged the distraction that has happened is something I deeply regret,” Shulkin told a House Appropriations Committee panel Thursday, referring to the European trip. “I believe we are getting back on track, and I’m going to do my best to keep the focus on the work we need to do.”

Shulkin has held on, in part because he retains bipartisan support in Congress and from the leaders of veteran organizations who favor only limited VA privatization.

“Whoever he might pick to run the VA after firing Shulkin would presumably be a proponent of far more privatized care,” Joe Chenelly, executive director of AMVETS, wrote Thursday in an opinion article published by USA Today.

“This is really about the ideological addiction that afflicts a handful of legislators, a few White House functionaries and maybe even Trump himself,” he wrote. “But it is veterans who will suffer the side effects of this addiction.”

Trump is said to be considering replacing Shulkin with Pete Hegseth, a Fox News personality and former Army officer who was considered for the job in 2016, as well as Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who recently played down his interest in the job.

Hegseth is the former chief executive of Concerned Veterans for America — a group supported by conservative political donors who favor a far-reaching overhaul of VA programs to let veterans choose whether to seek treatment at a VA facility or a private medical center.

“That's the type of system the VA should have,” Hegseth said on Fox News in 2016. “Go to the VA if you want to, or go to a private provider.”

Shulkin told lawmakers Thursday that he opposed too many changes to the government-run system of VA hospitals and that Trump agreed with him.

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“I have been clear that I think this would be the wrong decision for our country's veterans to privatize VA,” he said. “I have also been clear that I think that VA can't do this alone. The president is very, very committed to improving services for veterans. There is no pressure to privatize.”

Shulkin last year appeared to be a favorite of Trump, who once called him the “100-to-nothing man,” a reference to his unanimous Senate confirmation vote. Trump joked that Shulkin was safe from being fired after he helped push legislation through Congress last year to speed disability appeals at the VA.

“Shulkin helps Trump more than he hurts him,” said Phillip Carter, a former Army officer and veterans policy expert at the Center for New American Security, a Washington policy analysis organization. “Firing Shulkin also won't solve the deeper policy disagreements.”

The VA has struggled for years to reduce wait times for veterans seeking treatment at its hospitals around the country.

An inspector general report issued last Wednesday said that “failed leadership” at the department during the Obama administration had put patients at a VA medical center in Washington, D.C., at risk, finding that three VA program offices knew of “serious, persistent deficiencies” at the hospital.

Shulkin, who was undersecretary for health at the VA in the Obama administration, told investigators he did “not recall” being notified of the problems.

The findings echoed a 2014 scandal at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital in Arizona, where several veterans died after being placed on a waiting list for treatment and others languished for months.

Shulkin declined to comment when asked Thursday about reports the inspector general was investigating whether he had used his security team to run personal errands and that he had placed an armed guard outside his office at VA headquarters.

“My security detail assesses the risk and makes the decisions on how to best protect the Cabinet member,” Shulkin said. “I will tell you, every Cabinet member has a security detail that is armed. I’m no different.”

The earlier inspector general report said Shulkin and his wife, Merle Bari, spent nine days in Europe, but business meetings took only 3½ days. It concluded that he improperly accepted tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament and brought his wife along at taxpayer expense, the report said.

The scathing report said Shulkin and several top staff members made false and misleading statements both to justify the $122,334 trip and to defend it afterward. His chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, doctored an email to convince an agency ethics lawyer to approve a $4,300 flight for Shulkin's wife, the report found.

Another aide devoted “many hours” to arrange tourist activities for Shulkin and his wife, “time that should have been spent conducting official VA business and not for providing personal travel concierge service,” the report said.

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Shulkin acknowledged mistakes in the handling of the trip and said he relied too much on the judgment of his staff to ensure full compliance with travel policies. He has since said he reimbursed the $4,000 plane ticket for his wife. Simpson has left the department.

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