What changed Donald Trump’s mind about VA Secretary David Shulkin? Assuming that Axios’ Jonathan Swan has the story right, it wasn’t an Inspector General report about Shulkin’s misuse of funds and resources on an expensive European vacation. It wasn’t Shulkin’s threadbare “one-memoed hacker” response to the report, which didn’t exactly impress the White House. It wasn’t even a second IG report on the chronic failures of the Washington DC VA facility which Shulkin never corrected as deputy AG because, as the IG reported, Shulkin didn’t bother to ask about it.
No, the final straw might end up being Shulkin’s contact with the New York Times to spin meetings with John Kelly and Trump himself. Shulkin insisted that he walked away with complete victory over political foes and the authority to remove other Trump appointees:
In an administration rife with intramural fights, the battle over the Department of Veterans Affairs has stood out, not only for its vitriol but also for its consequences. At stake is the future of the nation’s veterans health care system.
For now at least, it appears moderation has prevailed, with the Veterans Affairs secretary, David J. Shulkin, thwarting a pitched conservative push to drive him out.
“It’s my job as secretary to get the organization singly focused on making the V.A. work better for vets,” the secretary, a physician and holdover from the Obama administration, said in an interview on Monday, after the latest in a string of meetings with the White House chief of staff. “I’ve been making it clear to the organization that we will not be distracted as we have in the last couple weeks.”
“People need to get on board with that or need to leave,” he added.
Not so fast, Swan reports. Kelly felt burned by Shulkin after this got published, and not for the first time:
This paragraph in the story especially infuriated Kelly, according to two sources familiar with his thinking: “[Shulkin] said in an interview that President Trump and Mr. Kelly supported his making changes at the department, including the removal of any staff members who did not support him.”
Kelly found out about the article because the NYT reporters contacted the White House press shop before publishing the story. Kelly called Shulkin to ask him if he had said this to Times. He felt Shulkin was trying to exploit the meeting he had with him.
(This isn’t the first time Kelly felt that way. Senior White House officials were infuriated by an interview Shulkin gave Politico late last month, where he effectively said the same thing. The headline blared: “Shulkin says he has White House backing to purge VA.” But the White House gave Shulkin no such authority at the time, and in fact stymied his attempts to fire what he perceived as Trump political appointees who were conspiring against him.)
From the WH’s perspective: They agreed to work with Shulkin on fixing his staff problems. But both times they talked, he went directly to the media and declared victory. In the view of senior officials, there’s a difference between discretely and professionally handling staffing issues and publicly embarrassing and firing supporters of the president. Kelly agreed to help Shulkin with the former, and Shulkin keeps trying to do the latter.
Nothing will get under Trump’s skin faster than someone attempting to play him in the press, especially with the New York Times. If Swan’s correct, this was an exceedingly arrogant maneuver, which seems to go along with the portrait of Shulkin painted in both IG reports, especially the first. He seems much more interested in building fiefdoms than in changing the fundamental flaws at the VA.
So why is he still there? Congress sees Shulkin as a continuity champion, and members of both parties seem invested in incremental repair of the status quo rather than effective reform. Shulkin understands this too, which is why he is casting the internal war as a conservative coup in an attempt to “privatize” the VA. That has captured the attention of the congressional committees that oversee the VA, helping Shulkin maintain his political influence in DC.
Swan indicates that Trump might be tired of both Shulkin and of business as usual. During their most recent meeting, Trump called Fox’s Pete Hegseth to discuss the pace of reform. Hegseth used to helm Concerned Veterans for America and had been suggested for Shulkin’s job at one time. Hegseth wants much broader choice for veterans, especially in routine care, rather than having them stuck inside the government-run system for issues that have little to do with military service. Swan reports that the call to Hegseth made Shulkin feel awkward, which raises questions about why he would then tell the NYT that he’d gotten a “full speed ahead” from Trump. Anyone else would have seen that as a signal of less than full confidence, assuming it happened as Swan reports.
Clearly, someone needs to leave, and it’s probably not the rest of Trump’s appointees who took “draining the swamp” seriously at the VA. Rather than wait for a resignation, Donald Trump needs to put an end to the confusion at the VA and give Shulkin the boot.