Former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin doesn’t want you to think his new book is an attack on President Donald Trump.
But he does want you to know the many levels of dysfunction and chaos he faced while working in that administration.
“I was aware of a lot of the division and chaos in the country and in the administration, and in a lot of ways I was naively keeping my head down, believing I could operate outside of that,” said Shulkin, who outlines his nearly three years of public service within VA in the new biography “It Shouldn’t Be This Hard to Serve Your Country.”
“I thought I could avoid this, and I was wrong. I got sucked into the same type of swirling political gamesmanship that was happening in other parts of the administration. And unfortunately, even veterans issues get politicized.”
The book, being released next week amid the ongoing House impeachment investigation into Trump, has already drawn attention for Shulkin’s revelations that top administration officials considered closing down some poor-performing VA facilities and for Shulkin’s own account of his surprise nomination to the top VA post.
But the volume also contains hundreds of pages detailing infighting among Shulkin’s leadership team and White House political appointees, many of whom the former secretary said were allowed to operate unchecked and sabotaged his work to advance their own policy agendas.
For months before his firing over Twitter, Shulkin was besieged by accusations he improperly used his position to take his wife on an overseas business trip and improperly accepted free tickets to a Wimbledon tennis match. An internal investigation also criticized how his personal security detail was managed, including performing some personal errands for Shulkin.
Shulkin in the book details those scandals but also notes that investigators found no serious violations with the moves. What ultimately lead to his dismissal, he said, was constant undermining of his work by opponents within VA and the White House, many of whom he unsuccessfully tried to sideline.
He details VA public affairs staffers issuing statements without his knowledge, White House officials calling veterans policy meetings without inviting him, and staffers “setting me up” to appear out of touch or out of step with the department.
During one meeting in March 2017 — just a few weeks before his firing — Shulkin said he complained about the situation to Trump and was told he had to find a way to get along with his opponents because “they’ll cause trouble from the outside if they go.”
“To me it was clear,” he writes in the book. “I was pushed out of VA because of a partisan desire to get rid of me and any other obstacle standing in the way of privatizing VA.”
Shulkin was an advocate for legislation to dramatically expand options for veterans to receive free health care outside VA at private-sector clinics. That plan eventually became the VA Mission Act, passed into law a few months after Shulkin’s firing.
In the book he hails the passage as an important step forward but also warns that forces within the administration are still pushing to go further, potentially pulling funding and resources from VA facilities. Shulkin said he has not spoken directly to current VA Secretary Robert Wilkie in recent months, but worries he faces the same internal pressures and confusion.
“Calling the first few months of the Trump administration disorganized, even chaotic, would be kind,” he writes. “Absent regular meetings with the White House, each Cabinet secretary pretty much found his or her own way of communicating with the president and getting things done.”
Shulkin asserts that the problems he encountered are not unique to the Trump administration, but instead to the culture of Washington that has developed in recent years.
“I strongly believe that we as a society have allowed public service to become far too unpleasant,” he writes.
“When we were recruiting for the VA, many wonderfully qualified people expressed a sincere desire to learn more about joining the team … Once they learned about the limitations on outside activities, the number of regulations and restrictions, the reputational risks, the toxic political culture and the low salary, they refused to take the leap.”
Shulkin, who previously served as VA’s top health official under President Barack Obama, argues that the federal government “needs to transform into a more welcoming environment for talented individuals who can bring significant real-world experience” into the public jobs.
Shulkin now runs a new healthcare consulting firm, and said he does not regret his decision to serve as VA secretary (the first non-veteran ever to do so), even after the anxiety and frustration that came with the experience.
“I would not only do it all again, but I will continue to advocate for veterans for the rest of my life,” he said.
But he also warned that many others may not feel the same way.
“The environment of public service right now is that people feel it’s OK to level personal attacks against others,” he said. “That is an absolute formula for failure for the future of public service.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.