Embattled VA Secretary Shulkin faces skeptical Congress
In the weeks since a sharply critical inspector general report faulted Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin with misusing taxpayer funds and amid reports of an agency rife with tension and infighting, Shulkin has maintained that he is fully in control, insisting that he has “no tolerance” for those who try to distract from the department’s mission.
But on Capitol Hill, lawmakers seem frustrated by a steady stream of events that have put more attention on the agency’s internal squabbles than the veterans it seeks to serve.
Two top Democrats on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee — Jon Tester of Montana and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington — each pointed to “chaos” and “infighting” at the department.
“I’m deeply concerned by reports of chaos at the highest levels of VA, which seems to be a trademark of this Administration,” Murray, who was briefed on Thursday by department Inspector General Michael Missal on Thursday about the investigation, said in a statement. “That chaos is a huge disservice to millions of veterans across the country who deserve a department that is fully focused on serving their needs.”
Cassie Byerly, a spokeswoman for Tester, said that “veterans deserve better than a VA that’s crippled by infighting.”
Asked whether Tester still backed Shulkin, Byerly said that America’s veterans need leaders at the Veterans Affairs Department and in the White House focused on ending the department’s Veterans Choice Program and ensuring veterans have access to quality care.
“That means we need a secretary who works for our veterans, not for the Koch Brothers,” she said.
Shulkin has been working to clear his name and restore confidence in his leadership since the inspector general report found that he and senior members of his staff misled agency ethics officials and that Shulkin misused taxpayer funds.
Shulkin has taken issue with the report, calling it “entirely inaccurate,” but has said he would follow all inspector general recommendations and has already repaid the US Treasury for his wife’s travel. He has said that he regrets that the matter has taken the focus off the department’s mission.
He has also said that the Europe trip, which included a veterans mental health conference as well as sightseeing and a Wimbledon match, was essential to his job.
But it is also unclear whether he has full control of his agency as power struggles over competing policy priorities between Shulkin and Trump appointees spill into the open.
Those include the departure of Shulkin’s chief of staff, who was named in the IG investigation, and reports that two White House advisers were meeting with key veterans groups to discuss policy issues without the presence of Shulkin’s key aides.
The latest signal of turmoil came Wednesday when USA Today and The Washington Post each reported that John Ullyot, a senior aide at the department, tried to get a top House Veterans’ Affairs Committee staffer to encourage members to demand the resignation of Shulkin, and his deputy secretary, Thomas Bowman. Ullyot was joined on the call by the department’s press secretary, Curt Cashour, the newspapers reported.
Ullyot and Cashour in a joint statement provided to reporters disputed the characterization of the call and said the allegation was “ridiculous.”
Amanda Maddox, a spokeswoman for Sen. Johnny Isakson, the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, told CNN that Isakson still “strongly supports” Shulkin, but did not respond to a request for comment on Shulkin’s aides reportedly attempting to oust him. Tiffany Haverly, communications director for House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Phil Roe, said that Roe has said “both publicly and privately, on multiple occasions, that the secretary and deputy secretary have his full support.”
So far, just one lawmaker — Colorado Republican Rep. Mike Coffman, a member of the House Veterans Affairs panel — has called for Shulkin’s resignation. On Wednesday, he called on President Donald Trump to remove Shulkin from his job, saying that Shulkin “clearly lacks the moral authority to lead the VA” and the integrity expected of a member of Trump’s Cabinet.
Shulkin was at the White House on Thursday — alongside two other embattled Cabinet heads — for a White House summit on the opioid epidemic, a chief policy priority of the Trump administration.
During the daily briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said that Shulkin was “glad for the job [Shulkin] is doing to reform and modernize the VA,” and that the President supported that work. She added that the White House is reviewing Shulkin and his wife’s travel expenses, to ensure that Shulkin is “being responsible with taxpayer dollars.”