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Trump picks Wilkie to lead VA

Department of Veterans Affairs (Photo: bakdc / Shutterstock)

Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie, shown here at a White House press conference, is President Donald Trump's pick for the permanent position.


The day after signing a $10 billion deal to transform the Department of Veterans Affairs' electronic health records system, acting VA secretary Robert Wilkie is being tapped for the top job at the agency.

Wilkie, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, was selected by President Donald Trump to lead VA on an acting basis after then-Secretary David Shulkin was fired in March.

Trump announced the nomination news in seemingly off-the-cuff remarks at a May 18 White House event on prison reform.

Introducing the cabinet members at the event, Trump said that Wilkie, "by the way, has done an incredible job at the VA, and 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 added: "I'm sorry that I ruined the surprise."

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who chairs the committee that will conduct Wilkie's confirmation, said, "I've enjoyed my time getting to know Robert Wilkie and working alongside him to advance community care legislation through Congress. I congratulate Undersecretary Wilkie on his nomination and look forward to learning more about his long-term views for the VA, including how he plans to implement the VA MISSION Act when it becomes law, as we work through the confirmation process."

The timing of the announcement may not be entirely improvisational, coming a day after the momentous decision to sign off on VA's contract with Cerner and launch one of the largest technology transformations ever attempted by any government agency. The Vacancies Act puts restrictions on what a nominee for a Senate-confirmed post can do on an acting basis.

"The nominee cannot be acting at any point of the process," said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University.

That suggests the White House will have to name someone other than Wilkie to lead VA during the confirmation process. A VA spokesperson referred questions on this subject to the White House. An email query to the White House press office was not immediately returned.

Already, Wilkie's acting service has been called into question because of the circumstances of Shulkin's exit from government service. The Vacancies Act does allow a Senate-confirmed official to move into a vacant leadership role at a cabinet agency, jumping the official line of succession, but it's not clear if that's allowed when an official is fired. Adding to the confusion, Shulkin says he was fired, but the White House says he was not.

The controversy is the subject of a lawsuit filed by the progressive veterans organization VoteVets and government watchdog Democracy Forward, which argues that deputy secretary Thomas Bowman should have been named acting VA chief after Shulkin's departure.

Wilkie does have the advantage of already being confirmed by the Senate for his current role. However, some Democrats have already raised concerns about decisions being made by Wilkie as acting agency head, including the pick of Camilo Sandoval to serve as VA's acting CIO.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) who sits on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, signed a letter asking for Sandoval, who has been accused of harassment as a Trump campaign operative in a civil case seeking damages, to be removed.

Wilkie issued a statement in response to the letter describing Sandoval as "well suited to oversee VA’s IT infrastructure while the White House vets a permanent candidate for the position."

However, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) the ranking member of the Senate VA Committee issued a statement saying, "I have a good working relationship with Acting Secretary Wilkie and I look forward to sitting down with him again to have an in-depth conversation about his vision and plan for the VA."

FCW Staff Writer Chase Gunter contributed reporting to this article.

This story was updated May 18 with additional details and comments.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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