President Donald Trump has tapped Robert Wilkie to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs — just three weeks after his first nominee withdrew from the process amid scandal.
Wilkie is currently the VA’s acting director and has served in that position since Trump fired David Shulkin back in March over a significant disagreement over veterans’ health care.
According to the president, Wilkie didn’t know Trump would announce his nomination on Friday. “I’ll be informing him in a little while — he doesn’t know this yet — that we’re going to be putting his name up for nomination to be secretary of the Veterans Administration,” Trump said during a White House event on prison reform.
Wilkie, who was in the audience, got up and shook the president’s hand. “I’m sorry that I ruined the surprise,” Trump joked afterward.
President Trump on Robert Wilkie: "We're going to be putting his name up for nomination to be Secretary of the Veterans Administration." pic.twitter.com/uXs4loUbpP— CSPAN (@cspan) May 18, 2018
Wilkie will now go through the confirmation process — the same process that only recently doomed Trump’s previous choice to lead the VA, top White House doctor Ronny Jackson.
Jackson, a Navy admiral with very little management experience, faced mounting concerns in the Senate over allegations of misconduct. Whistleblowers claimed he drank too much on the job, oversaw a “toxic” work environment, and even overprescribed medication. Lawmakers postponed Jackson’s confirmation hearing in light of the claims. Instead of participating in a confirmation hearing, Jackson withdrew his nomination. He remains in his position as White House doctor.
If confirmed, Wilkie has a tough job ahead of him. Anthony Principi, VA secretary from 2001 to 2005, told me in March that the department is in “absolute turmoil.” Part of that turmoil includes a longstanding fight over whether medical care for veterans should be privatized or still run by the government. That fight led to Shulkin’s ouster in March since he defied the administration’s wishes for privatization.
“They saw me as an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed,” Shulkin wrote in a New York Times op-ed on March 28. “That is because I am convinced that privatization is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans.”
It’s unclear where Wilkie stands on the issue, or how he even plans to officially lead the department.
Though Trump publicly announced his intention to nominate Wilkie, he’ll have to step down from the acting role for Trump to make Wilkie’s nomination official, since the Vacancies Reform Act prohibits an acting officeholder from being nominated to serve in the top position permanently.
Principi told me that any new VA secretary, once confirmed, will need to make their mark early. “More than anything, what’s needed now is consistency and leadership,” he said. Otherwise, “the VA will fail.”