WASHINGTON – Embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin is hanging on to his job by a thread as he faces a revolt from within the agency, and the new accusations that he was a member of his security detail go shopping with him at Home Depot, and then cart the purchases in his house.
Senior officials say Shulkin is still on thin ice with President Donald Trump after a bruising internal report found ethics violations in connection with the secretary’s trip to Europe with his wife last summer.
A political advisor installed by Trump to the Department of Veterans Affairs has openly come up to other VA staff about the ousting of the former Obama administration official. And a top communication aide has taken extended leave after a secret, unsuccessful attempt to the lawmakers against him.
“The journey ends with a crash, that hurts the veterans most of all,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who has a close observer of the VA for more than a decade. “VA has always been bad news, but Shulkin ethical and leadership errors are still significant — despite all the internal attacks.”
Shulkin also bracing for an upcoming VA watchdog report, due for release in the summer, which focuses on the question of whether he used his 24-7 security detail for personal messages.
The audit is the examination of a complaint by a security employee who said that he was asked to accompany the secretary to a Home Depot and carry furniture into his house, according to two people familiar with the assertion that for anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
Senior officials describe a growing frustration that Shulkin repeatedly ignore their advice, only to beg for their help, when he runs into ethical problems. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive internal discussions, say, Shulkin received a final warning at the end of the whirlwind of distractions. The administration is currently seeking to push Asset on the agenda of aggressive expansion of the Veterans Choice program, in which large groups of veterans can take care of an unwanted step in the direction of the privatization of VA healthcare.
The issue came to the fore at a White House meeting last week, when chief of staff John Kelly told Shulkin to stop talking with the media without the approval of the first with the White House and to remain focused on the determination of veterans health care.
Shulkin was accompanied on that meeting at the Oval Office, where Trump asked him about his efforts to be the Choice of expansion, which lawmakers are now looking to include in a massive spending bill that must be approved by next week to avert a government shutdown.
With Shulkin present, the president called conservative Pete Hegseth, a “Fox & Friends” contribution that was vetted by the end of 2016 for VA secretary, to share his vision on how to deal with the expansion. Hegseth, a former president of the conservative group Concerned Veterans of America, declined to comment for this article.
Then Caldwell, executive director of the CVA, said the White House emphasis on the Choice, amidst the ongoing controversies surrounding Shulkin. “Despite the internal drama going on in the VA, that is a distraction, Congress has continued to work on a solution that everyone can rally around,” he said.
Shulkin is accusing the internal drama on a half dozen or so of the political appointments that he had considered shooting, only to be blocked by Kelly.
“I regret everything that led us from what we should focus on, that is where veterans,” Shulkin told the AP shortly before the release of an inspector general report that faulted the VA for “failed leadership and an unwillingness or inability of leaders to take responsibility for the accounting problems at a large VA hospital that patients with an increased risk.
It was not always so.
Early in the administration, Shulkin was often to be seen on Trump’s side, waving to the crowd at a campaign-style events in Pennsylvania, or the approach of the reporters at the doctor in the white coat as he accompanied the Trump of telehealth tested. Trump called him the “100-to-nothing-man” — a reference to his unanimous Senate confirmation votes, and in the public bullied that he would probably never be fired, because he had successfully led legislation to improve the accountability of the VA and the speed of the disabilities of the appeal.
December, the relations at the VA between Shulkin and a number of political appointments began to unravel about philosophical differences.
In a Dec. 4 internal e-mail obtained by the AP, Jake Leinenkugel, a senior assistant installed as part of a Government-wide program to monitor the clerks’ loyalty, ” said Shulkin was always suspicious and considered Camilo Sandoval, a senior consultant in VA’s health arm, as a White House “spy.”
The e-mail to Sandoval hinted at the White House efforts to gain more control, such as the expulsion of Shulkin’s chief of staff, and said the secretary had been “on notice to leave” when the administration gets the Choice of law by the Congress.
There were also other signs.
In a Jan. 17 hearing, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., openly, the blame for the deadlock over the Choice to Shulkin’s ever-changing positions. “I am of the opinion that our inability to reach an agreement in a considerable part in connection with your ability to speak from both sides of your mouth, double-talk,” Moran said. A grim Shulkin denied the allegation, but the White House was later forced to clarify the position on the bill by legislator confusion.
In the last month, the inspector general released a blistering report finding ethical violations in Shulkin trip in July last year to Denmark and England, who mixed business with pleasure. The IG found that Shulkin, the chief of staff of the Vivieca Wright Simpson had forged e-mails to justify his wife with him on taxpayer costs. Wright Simpson retired after the report was issued.
Seizing on the report, John Ullyot, a top communications aide, and VA-spokesman Curt Cashour, said the Republican staff director of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, which Shulkin would be by that weekend and asked, if the Republicans would be pushing for his removal.
The staff of the director, John Towers, said Ullyot, “no,” and made it clear that the Chairman of the commission Phil Roe had expressed support for Shulkin, according to a House aide familiar with the phone conversation. That aide also requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive internal matter. In a statement, Cashour and Ullyot deny that account, saying the call was intended in the place to warn the committee that some of Shulkin the denials of misconduct were unfounded.
Asked this week about Ullyot, the current leave, Cashour released a statement saying, “there are no personnel changes to announce to the Department of Veterans Affairs.”
For now, Shulkin seems to be hanging on. At a Cabinet meeting Thursday, Shulkin took a seat reserved for him beside the president.
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed to this report.
Follow Yen on Twitter https://twitter.com/hopeyen1 and the Miller at the http://twitter.com/@ZekeJMiller