WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump named the chief of staff of the Department of Veterans Affairs to lead the agency on an acting basis on Wednesday while the president’s nominee awaits Senate confirmation.
The White House said Trump had designated Peter O’Rourke to serve as acting VA secretary, effective Tuesday. Trump tapped acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to serve as permanent secretary earlier this month.
Wilkie has led the VA since Trump fired David Shulkin in March amid an ethics scandal. Trump then turned to Ronny Jackson, the Navy doctor who had been his personal physician, but Jackson withdrew following questions about his professionalism. Wilkie, a former Pentagon undersecretary, cannot run the agency on an acting basis while he awaits Senate confirmation.
The VA is the federal government’s second-largest agency with 360,000 employees serving 9 million veterans. Democrats have said they plan to question Wilkie on whether he plans to “privatize” or degrade the VA health system, an issue that Shulkin says led to his ouster.
O’Rourke, a veteran of the Navy and Air Force, previously served as the head of the VA’s new accountability office, which is charged with helping enforce the new law making it easier to fire employees. His appointment by Trump bypassed the No. 2 official at VA, Tom Bowman, who has come under criticism at the White House for being too moderate to push Trump’s agenda of fixing veterans’ care.
Previously a member of Trump’s transition team, O’Rourke is viewed by the White House as a trusted official amid political infighting at the department. He took over as the No. 3 official at VA in February after the former chief of staff stepped down over findings by the VA inspector general that she misled VA ethics officials to help secure a free 11-day trip to Europe for Shulkin’s wife.
When O’Rourke took over the chief of staff position, the VA issued a statement that his presence will ensure VA leadership works closely with the White House going forward.