Surprises remain the norm at the White House. Robert Wilkie’s predecessor got fired on Twitter, but Wilkie himself got hired in an off-hand comment at a press avail. Donald Trump surprised both Wilkie and the press by announcing his appointment to run the VA, replacing David Shulkin. The Trump administration decided to play it safe after a botched outside-the-box nomination in between:
President Trump on Friday nominated the Department of Veterans Affairs’ acting secretary, Robert Wilkie, as its permanent leader, choosing a Washington insider to restore confidence in an agency roiled by political infighting.
Wilkie, 55, is an officer in the Air Force Reserve who has worked on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon under two presidents. He was unaware Trump’s announcement was coming, although he was a leading contender for the job and recently flew to the president’s private Mar-a-Lago Club in South Florida to meet with Marvel Entertainment chief executive Ike Perlmutter, an unofficial adviser to Trump on veterans issues.
“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 Friday during a White House event at which Wilkie was present. The president added that Wilkie has done “an incredible job” as VA’s acting secretary.
Trump first chose White House doctor Admiral Ronny Jackson for the post, but a series of anonymous complaints — some contradicted by the Secret Service — put an end to his nomination last month. Jackson had been a controversial choice anyway, having little experience in running large organizations. Critics accused Trump of taking a flier based on personal connections rather than looking for someone who has the skills and experience to take charge of a massive bureaucracy with too many failings to count.
Wilkie represents a conventional choice in every aspect except the announcement of the choice itself. He took over the VA as its acting secretary after Shulkin’s abrupt departure, but has worked at the Pentagon as a Senate-confirmed Undersecretary of Defense for James Mattis, and had been an Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs in the George W. Bush administration. In his brief time at the VA, he’s earned praise from the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee leadership, as well as from key veterans’ groups:
Unlike Jackson, whom Trump seemingly nominated on a whim — for being “out of central casting” — and without the usual background vetting, Wilkie has experience with the Senate confirmation process. He was confirmed for his current, lower-profile Pentagon position in November by a voice vote and has prepared other nominees, including Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, for the sometimes grueling process. Still, he is unlikely to take his own approval for granted.
Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the top Democrat on the Veterans Affairs Committee whose scrutiny of Jackson led to his withdrawal, said in a statement that he has “a good working relationship with Acting Sec. Wilkie and I look forward to sitting down with him again to have an in-depth conversation about his vision and plan for the V.A.”
The committee’s chairman, Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, offered similar qualified praise. He said he “enjoyed my time getting to know Robert Wilkie” and “look forward to learning more about his long-term views for the V.A.,” including his plans to implement a veterans measure passed by the House this week and awaiting a Senate vote.
At least for now, Wilkie seems to be low-key enough to glide through a confirmation process. The only potential hiccup might be the Trump administration’s attempts to bar transgender recruits from military service. After Trump surprised the Pentagon with his announcement of the policy, the Washington Post reports that Wilkie worked on crafting a process for implementing it as reasonably as possible. That might catch the ire of a few members of the SVAC and certainly will grab the attention of activist groups prior to any confirmation hearing.
It remains to be seen whether Wilkie will be a status-quo manager or a reformer intent on delivering the greater choice Trump promised veterans during the presidential campaign. If he’s the latter, Wilkie will likely keep it under wraps during the confirmation process. The SVAC doesn’t want to move toward greater choice, and they’re not going to give anyone who pushes for it an easy ride. However, given Trump’s mercurial moods in selecting a VA secretary, they might see Wilkie as the best they’ll likely get for the job, regardless. The biggest surprise might be that we won’t see any surprises from here out.