WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump fired Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, and nominated White House doctor Ronny Jackson, to replace him in the aftermath of a bruising ethics scandal and a mounting rebellion within the agency.
A Navy rear admiral, Jackson is a surprise choice to succeed Shulkin, a former Obama administration official and the first nonveteran at the head of the VA. Trump had seen replacements for Shulkin for weeks, but had not been known to be seen Jackson for the role.
In a statement, Trump praised Jackson as a “high trained and qualified.” It was a decision that signaled Trump chose to go with someone he knows and trusts, instead of the candidate with the longest resume, to a huge agency with huge bureaucratic challenges.
Jackson has served since 2013 as the physician to the president, one of the people who are closest in the proximity of Trump day in and day out.
His fame increased after he performed a stunning press conference about the president of the medical exam in January, where he impressed Trump with his camera ready attitude and deft navigation of reporters’ questions as he provided a bright presentation of the president’s health, according to a person familiar with the president’s thinking but not authorized to discuss private conversations.
Jackson eagerly embraced the idea of moving to the VA, according to a White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters. Ironically, it was Shulkin, who had recommended Jackson for an undersecretary position in the office fall. Jackson was vetted during that time on his political views, and other topics, the official said.
The promotion of Jackson is the newest addition to the rent to be driven at least as much by personal familiarity with the president and by his vision on the role of the government is the second largest department, which is responsible for 9 million military veterans in more than 1,700 government-health facilities.
Brig. Gen. Dr. Richard Tubb, who trained in Jackson, said in a letter to Jackson’s briefing that the doctor had been attached to the application as “Velcro” to Trump since the Inauguration Day.
“On a given day,” he wrote, “the ‘doctor’s office,” as he is called, is, in general, the first and the last to the President.”
A White House official said Shulkin was informed of his dismissal by the chief of staff to John Kelly for the president announced the move on Twitter on Wednesday.
A major veterans organization expressed concern over Shulkin the dismissal and the Trumpet of the intention to appoint Jackson, who they worried was lacking experience to run the huge department.
“We are disappointed and very worried about this candidate,” said Joe Chenelly, national executive director of AMVETS. “The government must be ready to prove that he is qualified to run such a massive desk, a $200 billion bureaucracy.”
Rep. Phil Roe, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said that he believed Shulkin did a “fantastic job” and not think that he would have been dismissed, but “at the end of the day, cabinet secretaries serve at the pleasure of the president.”
“I have respect for President Trump is the decision of the support of the president’s agenda and remain willing to work with anyone committed to do the right thing on behalf of our nation’s veterans,” said Roe, a Republican from Tennessee.
Shulkin is the second minister to leave about controversies with costly travel, following Health and Human Services Secretary, Tom of the Price of the dismissal in September last year. Trump said in a statement that he is “grateful” for Shulkin service.
Shulkin had agreed to a fee from the government more than $4,000 after the VA’s internal watchdog concluded last month that he had improperly accepted, Wimbledon tennis tickets and that his former chief-of-staff had falsified e-mails to justify his wife on a trip to Europe, with him on taxpayer costs. Shulkin also the fault of the internal drama to the agency on a half-dozen or so rebellious political appointments, but insist that he had White House backing to fire.
But the ongoing VA battle and a new series of watchdog reports in which leadership failures and expenditure of waste, as well as fresh allegations that Shulkin had a member of his security detail to run personal errands — turned out to be a lot of distraction.
It was the latest in a string of departures of top officials, including Secretary of state, Rex Tillerson and the national security advisor, H. R. McMaster.
The VA change comes as Trump is in the process of expanding the Veterans Choice program, fulfilling a campaign with the promise that the major veterans’ groups can cause an unwanted step in the direction of the privatization of VA healthcare. His plan remains in limbo in Congress.
With pushed through legislation in Trump ‘ s first year is to make it easier to fire bad VA employees, and speed disability appeal, Shulkin leaves behind a department in the war. Several projects remain unfinished, including a multibillion-dollar overhaul of the electronic medical record aimed at speeding up the waiting times for veterans seeking medical care and comprehensive mental health care for veterans at a higher risk of suicide.
Trump selected Robert Wilkie, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness to serve as the acting head of the VA.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.