- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2018

President Trump fired Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin on Wednesday in a long-expected move and tapped his White House doctor for the post.

“I am pleased to announce that I intend to nominate highly respected Admiral Ronny L. Jackson, MD, as the new Secretary of Veterans Affairs,” Mr. Trump tweeted.

The president said he is thankful for Mr. Shulkin’s “service to our country and to our GREAT VETERANS!”

In the interim, the president appointed Defense Department Undersecretary Robert Wilkie to serve as acting VA secretary.

Just hours earlier, a spokesman for Mr. Shulkin told The Washington Times that there were “no personnel changes to announce” at the agency, despite mounting reports that Mr. Trump was preparing to remove Mr. Shulkin.

“President Trump has made clear that he expects the department’s sole focus to be on providing quality care to America’s veterans who have sacrificed to keep this country free and safe,” VA spokesman Curt Cashour said.

A White House spokesman said Monday that Mr. Trump had confidence in Mr. Shulkin “at this point in time.” Some major veterans groups expressed support for keeping Mr. Shulkin in the post.

Mr. Shulkin was a rare holdover from the Obama administration in Mr. Trump’s Cabinet, having served as undersecretary of health at the VA from 2015 to 2017. While the president initially praised his performance, he began to sour on Mr. Shulkin this year after an inspector general’s report criticized the secretary for wasting taxpayer money on a trip to Europe with his wife last summer.

Mr. Shulkin fell out of favor with some White House advisers who favor pushing more veterans’ health care services to the private sector.

The choice of Adm. Jackson for the post was unexpected. Among the names that had been floated were Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Fox News analyst and Iraq War veteran Pete Hegseth and retired Gen. Keith Kellogg, chief of staff at the National Security Council.

Adm. Jackson became better known to the public this year when he gave an exhaustive, televised presentation about Mr. Trump’s health and pronounced him in excellent shape.

The president called him “highly trained and qualified.”

“As a service member himself, he has seen firsthand the tremendous sacrifice our veterans make and has a deep appreciation for the debt our great country owes them,” Mr. Trump said.

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman David P. Roe, Tennessee Republican, said of Mr. Shulkin, “I think he’s done a fantastic job, and I hate to see him go.”

“At the end of the day, Cabinet secretaries serve at the pleasure of the president,” Mr. Roe said. “I respect President Trump’s decision, support the president’s agenda and remain willing to work with anyone committed to doing the right thing on behalf of our nation’s veterans.”

Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a combat veteran and a former assistant secretary at the VA, said Mr. Shulkin was pushed out by “privatization extremists.” She also questioned whether an active-duty military officer can serve as a Cabinet secretary.

“Over the coming weeks, I will carefully review Dr. Jackson’s qualifications to determine whether he has the best interests of our veterans at heart or whether he, like many in the Trump administration, wants to push VA down the dangerous path of privatization,” she said.

Denise Rohan, national commander of the American Legion, said Mr. Shulkin “has acted in the best interests of America’s veterans and was making meaningful, positive changes at the VA.”

She said the nation’s largest veterans group “looks forward to working directly with the president through this transition and going forward, and providing him an increased level of advice and feedback on the issues important to America’s veterans.”

“Our 2 million members are opposed to any legislation or effort to close or privatize the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system, and we will continue to work vigorously to ensure our nation’s veterans have the efficient, transparent and properly functioning VA that they deserve,” she said.

The left-leaning veterans group VoteVets.org said Mr. Shulkin was “allegedly being undermined by those allies of the Koch Brothers, inside the VA and the administration,” who favor privatization of veterans’ health care services.

Will Fischer, the group’s director of government relations, said Adm. Jackson “has never managed an agency like the VA.”

“Now is not the time for people who need training wheels, when it comes to managing a massive health care system,” Mr. Fischer said.

“We’re hopeful that Dr. Jackson will forcefully come out against the notion of any privatization of the VA or its health services,” he said. “If Dr. Jackson can do that, immediately, he will do a lot to help his chances at confirmation. If he stands with the Kochs, we’ll use every available resource to ensure he is not confirmed.”

The VA is the second-largest agency in the federal government, behind only the Pentagon. It has more than 300,000 civilian employees; its budget request for fiscal 2019 is $198.6 billion.

The ouster of Mr. Shulkin was the president’s second high-level firing via Twitter in 15 days. He fired Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson on March 13 and tapped CIA Director Mike Pompeo to take the job as the nation’s top diplomat.

Among the administration’s other recent departures was White House communications director Hope Hicks, one of the president’s most trusted aides, who resigned and has yet to be replaced. Among those being mentioned for that job are White House communications staffer Mercedes Schlapp, Treasury Department Assistant Secretary Tony Sayegh and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.

One think tank study found that turnover of high-level staff in the West Wing was 48 percent in the first 14 months, significantly higher than most previous administrations.

Adm. Jackson began his active-duty naval service in 1995 and was an honor graduate of the Navy’s Undersea Medical Institute in Groton, Connecticut. He served during Operation Iraqi Freedom as the emergency medicine physician in charge of resuscitative medicine for a forward-deployed surgical shock trauma platoon in Taqaddum, Iraq.

He also has served as White House physician during the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

If confirmed by the Senate, Adm. Jackson will inherit one of the most challenging posts in the federal government. The VA has been beset by problems in recent years, struggling to keep up with increasing demand for services from veterans and their dependents.

The frustrations many veterans feel took an unusual and sad turn this week when a 62-year-old veteran killed himself in a waiting room of the John Cochran VA Medical Center in St. Louis. The circumstances haven’t been disclosed, but more than 20 veterans kill themselves each day in the U.S.

“Our deepest sympathies are with the veteran’s family and loved ones, our medical center staff and the members of the community affected by this tragic incident,” the VA said in a statement, adding that the St. Louis Police Department is investigating the incident.

In 2014, the VA was rocked by a scandal over phony record-keeping first exposed at a Phoenix VA facility that led to delayed care and patient deaths. The agency has been beset by complaints of retaliation against whistleblowers, a scandal involving overprescription of pain medication and the routine awarding of millions of dollars worth of employee bonuses funded by taxpayers.

VA leaders and lawmakers have complained that it was nearly impossible to fire employees for misconduct. In June, Mr. Trump signed into law the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, giving the department the ability to fire inept employees and protect those who uncover wrongdoing.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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