Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie warned his department’s core services “would be gone” if socialist ideals were to take over America — a swipe at the Democratic front runner to replace President Donald Trump.
“If socialism became the coin of the realm, that [care for veterans] would be gone,” Wilkie said in an interview with the far-right media outlet Breitbart at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday. “That place that was promised for warriors would disappear.”
The event, which had an announced theme of “America vs. Socialism,” featured Republican leaders attacking their political foes as dangerous for the country.
President Donald Trump appeared at the event Friday and promised his administration is “defeating the radical socialist Democrats.”
Wilkie attended the event but did not take the stage to give a speech. He told Breitbart that “socialism would wipe (VA) out” if allowed to take over American politics.
Wilkie’s remarks came as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a self-described democratic socialist, took the lead in the Democratic presidential primary race.
Wilkie did not mention Sanders by name in the interview but said he has “concerns” about public support for socialist ideas.
While past VA secretaries have frequently promoted their administration’s achievements, most have refrained from directly attacking the president’s political rivals during election years.
Wilkie also praised Trump for his efforts to revamp VA community care rules in recent years, noting that the new VA Mission Act signed into law last summer significantly increased the number of veterans receiving private sector care in conjunction with department oversight.
“That is a massive reform,” he said. “The president has taken ‘Choice’ and given it new meaning. We’re seeing it work on a scale that has really confounded critics.”
Sanders, who sits on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and previously served as the panel’s chairman, has been a vocal critic of the Trump administration’s plans to expand veterans access to private sector care at taxpayers expense, saying they would be better served by improving staffing and funding within the existing VA footprint.
Sanders also has accused Trump of working to privatize certain VA responsibilities, in order to weaken federal support services and boost profits for private companies.
In recent public appearances, Wilkie has countered those claims, saying that VA’s budget has continued to increase under Trump and that veterans are better served by having numerous options for medical care.
Sanders holds a slim lead in delegates for the Democratic presidential nomination after the first four primary contests of the 2020 election season.
Fourteen more states will hold primaries this Tuesday.
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.