The White House has given VA Secretary David Shulkin the green light to quash an internal rebellion among conservative foes of his leadership, he told POLITICO late Tuesday.
The embattled Cabinet head said he’d begun investigating what he called “subversion” at the agency, and those who have defied his authority “won’t be working in my operation.”
Shulkin’s new chief of staff, Peter O’ Rourke, is meeting with each staffer suspected of defying Shulkin “individually and as a group to determine, now that there is a clear direction where we are going, where people are going to stand,” he said. “Those who crossed the line in the past are going to have to be accountable for those decisions.”
Shulkin and the White House on Friday named O’Rourke, who previously led an accountability office at VA, to replace Vivieca Wright Simpson after she retired last week. An IG report accused her of falsifying an email to get the VA to pay for Shulkin’s wife to accompany him on a trip to England and Denmark over the summer.
The IG investigation, which also found Shulkin had improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets from a friend, appears to have brought Shulkin’s foes out in the open, seeing an opportunity to drive him out of office over the scathing report. But Shulkin repaid the money and appears to have maintained the White House’s backing.
“The White House has been clear they want me focused on the president’s agenda, and to do that I have to have the authority to be able to run the organization,” Shulkin said after meeting Tuesday with chief of staff John Kelly. “There’s never been any deviation from that.”
A White House official told POLITICO that Shulkin’s job is safe for now, assuming he doesn’t do anything to further inflame the controversy surrounding his travel.
Shulkin declined to say how many people were involved in what he described as “subversive events,” but several political appointees are believed to have been pushing for his ouster. Curt Cashour, Shulkin’s ostensible spokesman, has openly defied his orders, going so far as to remove statements Shulkin had posted on the VA’s website in recent days.
Shulkin said he didn’t fully understand the nature of the uprising. He noted that the Concerned Veterans of America, a Koch Brothers-backed group linked to some of Shulkin’s White House and VA foes, was among 26 veteran groups that signed off on a bill he negotiated with Congress to expand veterans’ access to health care outside VA facilities.
Concerned Veterans has pushed for greater choice for veterans, while Shulkin has been more cautious, not wanting to gut the agency’s venerable health services by allowing veterans to get all their care outside the agency.
But Shulkin said he saw the attack as a “classic power struggle” with highly political foes who “saw we had a secretary who’d been working effectively in a bipartisan way” and couldn’t tolerate it.
While it is not simple to fire a political appointee, he said, “I don’t think everybody’s going to remain at the VA.”
Shulkin is the only Cabinet-level holdover from the Obama administration who was reappointed by President Donald Trump. He was confirmed with unanimous support.
Andrew Restuccia contributed to this report.
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