WASHINGTON — Veterans groups are scrambling to show support for embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin amid reports that the White House may be considering forcing him out of the job over a series of internal fights with administration staffers.
“We have been encouraged by the great progress Secretary Shulkin has made and believe that he remains the best person to lead this important federal public institution on the behalf of the American people,” American Legion National Commander Denise Rohan said in a statement Monday.
“While we were disappointed to learn of the recent issue with the secretary’s travel, we believe that the current controversy surrounding the secretary is part of a larger effort to remove him and install others who would take steps to privatize the services provided to our nation’s heroes by the Department of Veterans Affairs.”
Last week, an inspector general’s report into an overseas trip by Shulkin last July found multiple violations by department staff of federal ethics rules, including improperly paying for his wife’s travel with taxpayer funds, using VA personnel to arrange sightseeing trips, accepting tickets to a Wimbledon tennis match from an English businesswoman and doctoring emails to justify those decisions.
Shulkin has denied intentional wrongdoing but has refunded the disputed costs of the trip. He has also called for a wider investigation into hacking of staff emails related to the controversy, and suggested that officials within his own department are using the scandal to undermine him because of policy disagreements.
White House officials and President Donald Trump have not offered public comment on the matter since the report was released last Wednesday. The silence has raised fears among veterans groups that the department may be on the verge of another leadership change, and the political turmoil that comes with that.
“What the VA needs in order to progress is stability in leadership,” said Kris Goldsmith, assistant director of policy at Vietnam Veterans of America.
“It’s a tremendous organization, and it takes an immense amount of time and energy to truly understand it. Dr. Shulkin knows that system, and his continued leadership is essential to reforming the VA so that our nation fulfills its promises to its veterans.”
In her statement, Rohan said Legion leadership is “disappointed” by the travel scandal, but also believe that those mistakes are being exaggerated by Shulkin’s critics to advance other agendas.
“Recent media investigations have confirmed that several political operatives have taken active measures to undermine Secretary Shulkin, his deputy, his former chief of staff and their ability to lead,” she said.
“We are 100% opposed to the privatization of the VA and will work vigorously to ensure our nation’s veterans have the efficient, transparent, and properly functioning VA that they deserve.”
On Sunday, AMVETS National Executive Director Joe Chenelly said that divisions within VA leadership “cannot be tolerated any longer” and implored the White House to support Shulkin.
“Secretary Shulkin has worked with us throughout his time at the helm, and he’s been successful in leading significant changes and laying the tracks for more important reform,” he said.
“The president needs to make it clear to all that it is Secretary Shulkin who is chiefly responsible for ensuring every veterans has access to high-quality health care. Short of that, the success this administration has enjoyed so far on veterans issues will cease.”
Veterans of Foreign Wars Executive Director Bob Wallace said in a statement that their organization still supports Shulkin.
”This political infighting must stop, so we also support full transparency about what is really going on,” he said. “The mission of VA is too important to have this type of behavior impacting employee morale and the trust of veterans in their VA.”
The support isn’t universal among the veterans organizations, however. Several have remains silent through the turmoil of the last few days. Others, like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said Shulkin needs to accept more responsibility for the current situation.
“This is a massive mess spiraling downward fast,” said Paul Rieckhoff, CEO of IAVA. “Our veterans deserve a VA that works, and it’s clearly not working well enough right now.
“They also haven’t heard anything whatsoever from the president about all of this. It’s long past time for him to tell us what action he’s taking to address this crisis of leadership. All of America is watching and waiting.”
Shulkin was confirmed by the Senate one year ago by a 100-0 vote, an achievement that Trump has frequently touted in public events over the last year. A still practicing physician, Shulkin is the only holdover in Trump’s Cabinet from former President Barack Obama’s administration.
Last week, in connection with the travel scandal, Shulkin’s chief of staff abruptly resigned and White House officials installed the head of the new VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection as her replacement.
Trump is scheduled to return to Washington later today. White House officials have not offered any guidance when an announcement on VA staffing may be released.
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.