President Donald Trump said Wednesday he intended to nominate Dr. Ronny L. Jackson as the new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, replacing embattled secretary David Shulkin, who has faced mounting scrutiny over his alleged misuse of government funds.
In a tweet posted Wednesday evening, Mr. Trump said Robert Wilkie, the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, will serve as Acting VA Secretary. Wilkie oversees “health affairs, welfare and quality of life for military families,” according to the White House. Jackson must receive Senate confirmation before taking the post.
“I am thankful for Dr. David Shulkin’s service to our country and to our GREAT VETERANS!” he added.
Jackson is a U.S. Navy admiral who was appointed by former president Barack Obama as the White House physician in 2013. Trump kept him in the position when he took office last year.
In January, Jackson briefed reporters on Trump’s first presidential physical, saying he had “absolutely no concerns” about the president’s health. Jackson added he thought Trump was “very sharp” and “very articulate when he speaks to me.”
Thirteen days ago, Shulkin told a House appropriations subcommittee that he had no intention of leaving his job. He doubled down on that claim five days later, telling the Associated Press, “there is no doubt I am the secretary.”
“With all of the distractions that are happening in Washington and all the distractions in VA, the events that have happened should remind us all about why it’s so important that we’re doing what we’re doing today to get this budget right and get VA on track,” he said at a budget hearing. “I came here for one reason and that is to improve the lives of veterans.”
Shulkin is one of at least six Trump officials who have raised ethics concerns over their use of taxpayer money. A report from the VA Inspector General in February said Shulkin accepted Wimbledon tickets and used government funds during a trip with his wife to Europe last year, and also misled ethics officials by having his staff alter documents about that trip. Shulkin told lawmakers he would repay the cost of his wife’s airfare, along with the cost of the tennis tournament tickets.
The allegations came amid other claims of mismanagement at the agency, including concerns over its medical centers and that it missed background checks for thousands of employees.
Shulkin, the only cabinet holdover from the Obama administration, had developed a good relationship with the president, the Washington Post’s Lisa Rein told the PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff on Wednesday. But in recent weeks, Shulkin pushed back hard against the inspector general report and went to the press about what he described as an internal push to oust him over his support of private care for veterans, a hot-button issue for the agency.
Shulkin has a reputation as a “very competent former hospital administrator,” Rein said. “But when you fall out of favor with the president,” who is often volatile in his opinions of those who serve him, Rein said, “it’s hard to get your footing back.”
Trump’s selection of Jackson to replace Shulkin came as a surprise, Rein said; the president had kept his short list of VA replacements close to the chest. But there are a number of unanswered questions about how he will fare as secretary.
For one, Jackson is still on active military duty, which means he would either have to retire or seek a waiver to serve as VA secretary, which is a civilian job. Former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who was also fired by Trump and will leave the White House next month, sought a similar waiver when he assumed his role, Rein said.
Jackson has also never run a large organization like the VA, which has more than 377,000 employees, nor is it clear how he feels about privatization of veterans health care, Rein said.
That’s the biggest question facing the agency, behind all the headlines, Rein said: “How much private care should veterans in the system be able to seek outside the system.”
PBS NewsHour will update this story as it develops.