Donald Trump Ousts VA Secretary David Shulkin
WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump on Wednesday said he had ousted his Veterans Affairs secretary, David Shulkin, and tapped the White House physician, Ronny Jackson, as his replacement.
“I am pleased to announce that I intend to nominate highly respected Admiral Ronny L. Jackson, MD, as the new Secretary of Veterans Affairs,” Mr. Trump tweeted Wednesday. He said Robert Wilkie, who currently serves as under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness at the Department of Defense, would serve as acting secretary “in the interim.”
In a statement issued by the White House, Mr. Trump praised Dr. Shulkin’s work and “the many great things we did together at Veterans Affairs, including the VA Accountability Act that he was helpful in getting passed.” The president called Dr. Shulkin a “great supporter of veterans across the country and I am grateful for his service.”
Dr. Shulkin didn’t return a request for comment on Wednesday.
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Dr. Jackson is a U.S. Navy rear admiral who has served as a White House physician during the past three administrations. In that role, he has overseen health care for the cabinet and senior staff, served as a physician supervisor at Camp David and led the White House Medical Unit, the White House said.
Dr. Jackson, if confirmed by the Senate, would take over the second-largest federal agency, which has more than 370,000 employees. The agency is responsible for, among other duties, providing health care services to veterans. The agency has struggled in recent years following a 2014 scandal over wait-times for VA hospital appointments.
At a White House briefing in January, Dr. Jackson praised the president’s “incredible genes,” saying he was “very healthy and will remain so for the duration of his presidency.”
Top veterans groups praised Dr. Shulkin on Wednesday, while some expressed concerns about his replacement.
“We’re really surprised at this nominee,” said Joe Chenelly, national executive director of Amvets, a veterans advocacy group. “Looking at his background we don’t see anything that indicates he’s capable of running a $200 billion agency. The VA is a lot more than just a medical system.”
Mr. Trump has been considering replacing Dr. Shulkin for weeks, following an inspector general’s report last month that said the secretary had misspent taxpayer money during an official trip to Europe last year.
Within minutes of tweeting his decision to replace Dr. Shulkin, the president called Sen. Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.), according to an aide to the senator. Mr. Isakson serves as chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, which will be charged with confirming Dr. Jackson.
Dr. Shulkin was the only cabinet-level holdover from President Barack Obama’s administration, having served as the head of the VA’s health-care arm under the former president.
Dr. Shulkin was initially praised for moving quickly to improve veterans’ access to private-sector health care and overhaul systems like the department’s antiquated electronic health-records system. That push to increase access to private-sector care continued efforts that were already being made in the wake of a 2014 scandal at the agency that saw employees falsifying records and delays in patient care.
But in recent months, the secretary drew criticism on a variety of fronts. As a result, Dr. Shulkin had been on the defensive, even going so far as to call reporters to plead his case and defend himself, claiming that the VA’s public affairs section wasn’t serving his interests.
In the fall, the department sent a proposed bill to Capitol Hill that would have overhauled the VA’s massive program known as Veterans Choice, a multibillion-dollar proposal to allow veterans to seek care with private-sector doctors. Some top lawmakers on the House and Senate committees on veterans’ affairs balked at the measure, saying it went too far toward privatization.
“We spent months and months working with the secretary and the VA on the Choice proposal,” a congressional aide said before Dr. Shulkin’s ouster. “To say that his departure would be a hit to the legislation that he helped craft would be true.”
Rep. Phil Roe (R., Tenn.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said of Dr. Shulkin, “I hate to see him go,” but said he respected the president’s decision.
While Dr. Shulkin had pushed to deepen private-sector coordination at the VA, his successor could seek to privatize veterans’ health care, a move opposed by many veterans organizations.
“We’re worried about what comes after him,” a top official at one major veterans’ advocacy group said.
Dr. Jackson has grown close to Mr. Trump, whose first physical as president he oversaw earlier this year. He has frequently accompanied the president on trips, including a visit to Rep. Steve Scalise (R., La.) after he was hospitalized for a gunshot wound, and a trip to New Hampshire last week to discuss the opioid crisis.
Dr. Jackson’s briefing to reporters in January on the president’s health was unusually extensive. The physician spoke for more than an hour and outlined his weight loss goals for the president, Mr. Trump’s cognitive assessment results and his sleep habits.
Obama administration officials defended Dr. Jackson after the briefing, which was criticized for being overly complimentary of the 71-year-old president’s health. “Dr. Jackson is a phenomenal doctor and a really great guy,” tweeted Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to Mr. Obama. “He and his team took great care of all of us for many years.”
Dr. Jackson began his active duty naval service in 1995 and served in the following years as an instructor at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center in Panama City, Fla.; as a diving medical officer at an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in Italy; and as a diving safety officer at the Naval Safety Center in Norfolk, Va.
In 2005, after spending a year serving as clinical faculty at an emergency medicine residency program at a Naval hospital in Portsmouth, Va., Dr. Jackson joined a 2nd Marines Combat Logistics Regiment in North Carolina and served as the emergency medicine physician in charge of resuscitative medicine for a platoon in Taqaddum, Iraq.
Mr. Shulkin’s ouster is the latest in a series of high-profile departures from the administration. The president in recent weeks has fired former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster, while National Economic Council director Gary Cohn and communications director Hope Hicks have resigned.
Write to Rebecca Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com and Ben Kesling at firstname.lastname@example.org