While a leadership change at the Veterans Affairs Department had been predicted, the nomination of Jackson surprised many.
President Trump on Wednesday fired Veterans Affairs Department Secretary David Shulkin, ending weeks of speculation surrounding the embattled agency head.
In what has become a pattern, Trump announced his decision over Twitter. He said he will nominate Navy Adm. Ronny Jackson, who has served as the White House physician since 2013, to replace Shulkin at VA. In the interim, Trump said, current Defense Department Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness will serve as acting director. The president said he was “thankful for Dr. David Shulkin’s service.”
....In the interim, Hon. Robert Wilkie of DOD will serve as Acting Secretary. I am thankful for Dr. David Shulkin’s service to our country and to our GREAT VETERANS!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 28, 2018
Rumors about Shulkin’s ouster began circulating in February after an inspector general faulted the secretary for a trip he took to Europe in 2017. Auditors found Shulkin inappropriately accepted gifts while abroad and allowed the government to pay for his wife’s travel. Shulkin since reimbursed the government for those costs, but has maintained he followed the advice of ethics officials throughout his tenure. He further blamed internal politics within the department for his controversies, saying other Trump administration officials at both VA and the White House were seeking to undermine him because he was not pursuing sufficient private health care access for veterans.
Shulkin continued to create headlines after becoming his own spokesman and repeatedly stating he would rid VA of his political enemies.
The secretary’s fate may have been sealed when a subsequent IG report found the Veterans Health Administration, which he helmed for two years under President Obama, was negligent in providing care for veterans at its Washington, D.C. medical facility. Leadership, the auditors concluded, created a “culture of complacency.” Shulkin was the lone member of Trump’s cabinet to serve in an appointed position during the Obama administration.
A third IG report this week cited VHA, again during the period in which Shulkin was its leader, for failing to conduct mandatory background investigations for thousands of medical professionals.
Key lawmakers and veterans service organizations had been unwavering in their support for Shulkin, saying they had developed good relationships with the secretary and they wanted him in place to see through reforms that were already underway or in development.
Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, praised Shulkin in a statement, but said he understood Trump’s decision and looked forward to building a relationship with Jackson.
“At the end of the day, cabinet secretaries serve at the pleasure of the president,” Roe said. “I have enjoyed getting to know Secretary Shulkin, and I’m glad to call David a friend. I think he’s done a fantastic job and I hate to see him go.”
The American Legion's National Commander Denise Rohan, which counts 2 million veterans in its membership, also applauded Shulkin's tenure and wished him well in the future.
“Secretary Shulkin has acted in the best interests of America’s veterans and was making meaningful, positive changes at the VA," Rohan said. "The American Legion looks forward to working directly with the President through this transition and going forward, and providing him an increased level of advice and feedback on the issues important to America’s veterans."