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President Trump Nominates Robert Wilkie To Head Veterans Affairs Department

May 18, 2018
Originally published on May 18, 2018 5:28 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The pick wasn't surprising, but the announcement was. President Trump today nominated the VA's acting secretary, Robert Wilkie, to become the next secretary of Veterans Affairs. Trump was speaking at a meeting on prison reform when he introduced Wilkie, praised the job he has been doing at the VA and then announced his decision apparently without telling Wilkie in advance. NPR's Quil Lawrence covers veterans.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Trump fired his first secretary of the VA, David Shulkin, by tweet in March. He then nominated his White House physician, Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, to the post. Critics say it was ill-advised since Jackson had never run a large organization, and some basic vetting soon uncovered numerous allegations of misconduct. When that nomination sank, veterans organizations feared the VA could be rudderless for a long time. But Robert Wilkie, who still holds his job as under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, has been acting like more than an acting VA secretary, which impressed President Trump, who introduced him at a White House meeting today.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And Acting Secretary Wilkie, who, by the way, has done an incredible job at the VA - and 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.

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LAWRENCE: Doesn't seem like that was staged. Wilkie, in the room, showed no signs of having been warned.

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TRUMP: I'm sorry that I ruined the surprise.

(LAUGHTER)

TRUMP: I'll see you anyway.

LAWRENCE: Veterans are hoping that is the only surprise twist in what appears to be a safe pick. Wilkie has been running a large government bureaucracy within the Pentagon, and he's already breezed through Senate confirmation to that post. He's 55, has served in both the Navy and the Air Force Reserves and worked for several Republican administrations and lawmakers. While he's known within the federal government, he's a relative unknown in the veterans community, which has seen 10 secretaries or acting secretaries for VA in the 17 years of war since 9/11. Paul Rieckhoff is with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

PAUL RIECKHOFF: Our members have been really clear about what they want to see from the next leader of the VA. Most of all, they need a committed, focused person who's going to put veterans above politics.

LAWRENCE: Political intrigue continues at the VA. Former Secretary Shulkin was fired after rivals in the Trump administration openly plotted his downfall. Since then, many senior VA officials have left, complaining of a politicized atmosphere at VA with a focus on loyalty to President Trump. And there's an existential question, says Rieckhoff.

RIECKHOFF: We look especially to see if Wilkie's going to expand privatization of the VA, which veterans nationwide continue to overwhelmingly oppose.

LAWRENCE: While VA has always relied on some help from private doctors, there are concerns that spending on the more expensive private care could put VA into a death spiral where it starves its own health budget, resulting in worse care at VA, resulting in more private care spending. Currently VA is rated to deliver as good or better quality care than the private sector in most states. Robert Wilkie, if confirmed, will guide the VA through this question.

This month, Congress is expected to send the president a bill to revamp the way VA pays for private care. It has overwhelming support from veterans organizations, but even some of them are deeply concerned that it could be implemented in a way that puts VA on a path toward privatization. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.