Embattled VA secretary: ‘I deeply regret’ distractions at agency
Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin on Thursday sought to put what he described as “distractions” behind him, telling House lawmakers that he’s focused on getting his department on track and working for veterans.
But later Thursday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders suggested that the secretary, under fire for ethics violations and in conflict with members of the administration, may not have the White House’s full support.
“The President has a large number of individuals that are working hard to make sure that the VA is helping veterans at the best level possible,” Sanders told reporters. “We are continuing to review if there are anything that we can do to improve on that system. And if we make changes, we will let you know.”
Asked whether that may include replacing VA leadership, Sanders said she had no personnel announcements, but that “every day we’re looking at how we can better the system, whether it’s through policy changes or personnel changes, not just at the top level, but across the board.”
Shulkin won unanimous Senate confirmation last year, and frequently appeared alongside the President during his first year on the job due to bipartisan wins he racked up on Capitol Hill. But his standing with the White House has soured amid disputes with Trump administration political appointees and the White House over how to best care for the nation’s veterans.
Last month, Shulkin was the subject of a damning IG report, and the President has grown frustrated with Shulkin, and considered replacing him with Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
Both men were on Capitol Hill on Thursday, testifying in two separate committee rooms in the same hall of a House office building. Perry arrived first and told CNN’s Rene Marsh that he isn’t interested in the VA job.
“I’ve got the perfect job,” Perry said as he walked into the hearing Thursday. Asked if he is happy as Energy secretary, he replied: “I’m a happy man.”
Minutes later, Shulkin arrived, and told reporters that he hadn’t spoken to Trump on Thursday. He didn’t respond to questions about whether he feels secure in his job.
On Thursday, Shulkin told lawmakers on a House appropriations subcommittee that he deeply regretted distractions involving his leadership at the agency, saying “I’ve publicly acknowledged the distraction that’s happened.”
“I’ve come here for one reason, that’s to improve the lives of veterans,” he said, adding that there are “a lot of people that frankly, are more interested in politics than I am.”
Shulkin also addressed reports that he has posted an armed guard at the door of his 10th floor office, saying that “every Cabinet member has a security detail that is armed, I am no different.”
He said that he has done “nothing different” with his security, though he prefers not to discuss it, and said that he does not personally make security decisions.
The troubles at the department of Veterans Affairs spilled into the public eye in February, when an inspector general report faulted him and senior aides for their handling of a 2017 Europe trip. The report found that Shulkin and top aides, including his chief of staff, misled ethics officials, and that his wife’s travel was inappropriately paid for by the agency. Shulkin has since repaid it.
But behind the scenes for months, Shulkin has been at odds with members of the department, installed by the Trump administration, a dispute over how much veterans should be able to seek private care outside the VA health care system.
Speaking to lawmakers on Thursday, Shulkin said he had not faced pressure from the administration or others to privatize veterans’ health care. Instead, Shulkin said, “there is no pressure to privatize. There is pressure to fix this system.”
Shulkin, who ran the VA’s health system under President Barack Obama, has retained the backing of key lawmakers on the House and Senate veteran’s panels. Just two lawmakers, Republican Reps. Mike Coffman of Colorado and Andy Biggs of Arizona, have called for Shulkin to resign.
Coffman told CNN in an interview Wednesday that Shulkin doesn’t have “the leadership or the moral authority to move the VA forward.”