POLITICS
05/18/2018 12:05 pm ET Updated May 18, 2018

Robert Wilkie Picked As New VA Secretary In Surprise Announcement

"He doesn't know this yet," Trump admitted.

President Donald Trump intends to nominate Robert Wilkie to head the Department of Veterans Affairs. Wilkie has been serving as the acting secretary since the president fired David Shulkin, the previous head of the VA.

Trump made the announcement at a summit on prison reform at the White House on Friday morning. He admitted that his decision was a surprise and that he had not yet told Wilkie, who was sitting in the audience.

“I’ll be informing him in a little while. He doesn’t know this yet that we’re going to be putting his name up for nomination to be secretary of the Veterans Administration,” Trump said. 

Wilkie then stood up and shook the president’s hand. 

Trump also didn’t give advanced notice to outside veterans groups. 

“We didn’t know in advance, but we wish him well through the confirmation process, and look forward to working with him for the betterment of our nation’s wounded, ill and injured veterans and their families,” Joe Davis, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said of Wilkie. 

The American Legion also said it didn’t know about the nomination although it wasn’t surprised. Denise Rohan, the head of the group, said in a statement that she welcomed the news that Trump had settled upon a nominee, but she didn’t weigh in directly on Wilkie. 

In his previous job at the Pentagon as undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, Wilkie played a key role in the administration’s ban on transgender service members. He recommended to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that transgender people be allowed to serve only if they do so “in their biological sex.” Mattis later made similar recommendations to Trump. 

Matt Thorn, the spokesman for OutServe-SLDN, said the network of LGBTQ military personnel will be pressing senators to ask Wilkie about his views on LGBTQ issues. 

“Unfortunately, the VA still bars surgery for transgender veterans, which is unacceptable and must be corrected,” Thorn said. “I hope that we can ascertain more information from Mr. Wilkie during his confirmation hearing. We must have a secretary that is inclusive of all veterans and values the commitment this country has made to ensuring they receive proper and speedy care.”

Trump had previously nominated White House doctor Ronny Jackson for the role, but Jackson withdrew from consideration last month after questions arose about his conduct in the medical office. Former colleagues accused him of overprescribing medications and being “abusive” toward employees. 

Trump personally liked Jackson, and he had picked him to be secretary without fully vetting him. Even before allegations about the doctor’s personal behavior popped up, senators and veterans groups questioned Jackson’s nomination because he has no experience managing a bureaucracy as big and complicated as the VA. 

There is currently a lawsuit challenging Wilkie’s role as acting secretary. VoteVets, a progressive veterans advocacy group, and Democracy Forward Foundation, a nonprofit legal organization, argue that Trump illegally bypassed the order of succession when he chose Wilkie, who came over from the Defense Department. 

They contend that Thomas Bowman, who was Shulkin’s deputy, should have been named the acting secretary.

“Robert Wilkie never had hearings to examine his views of veterans’ care or how he envisions the VA working,” said Will Fischer, director of government relations for VoteVets. “This flies in the face of the entire system of checks and balances that federal statutes and our Constitution call for.”

VoteVets also argues that, legally, Wilkie can no longer serve as acting secretary once he is nominated to fill the role permanently. 

The heads of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and ranking member Jon Tester (D-Mont.), both said they had a strong working relationship with Wilkie and looked forward to hearing more from him on his plans. Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, praised the pick and said he believed Wilkie would be an “effective” secretary.

The story has been updated with additional reactions to the news. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated Rep. Phil Roe represented a district in Texas instead of in Tennessee.

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