Trump names interim VA chief

Department of Veterans Affairs (Photo: bakdc / Shutterstock) 

Peter O'Rourke, the chief of staff at the Department of Veterans Affairs, will step in and lead the agency while President Donald Trump's pick for a new VA head is confirmed by the Senate.

Robert Wilkie, whose nomination to lead VA was unexpectedly announced by Trump in an offhand manner at a White House on May 18, has been temporary head of the veterans' agency since former chief David Shulkin was fired in March.

The shuffle between acting heads is necessary because of the Vacancies Act, a federal law that prohibits a candidate for a Senate-confirmable post from performing the duties of that job on an acting basis.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), the ranking member of the committee that will hold Wilkie's confirmation hearing, suggested at a May 22 press conference that a temporary leadership change might be needed to comply with the law.

Tester also said that Wilkie was a "strong choice" by Trump to head VA and that he didn't anticipate any hiccups during the confirmation process. That endorsement is critical. The Montana Democrat led the investigation that sank Trump's previous pick for the post, White House physician Adm. Ronny Jackson.

Wilkie owes his very presence at VA to the Vacancies Act. A provision in the law permitted Trump to give the acting secretary post to Wilkie, who was serving as undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. The law allows the president to circumvent an agency's established order of succession and select a Senate-confirmed official to take on the role of an acting agency chief.

O'Rourke was on the beachhead team that worked at VA from the start of the Trump administration and has served in the agency as head of the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection and more recently as chief of staff.

The VA also announced that deputy secretary Thomas Bowman is stepping down. Bowman, who was passed over for the acting secretary job, was reportedly targeted for dismissal by Trump before Shulkin's ouster in March.

The 368,000-person agency is still lacking Senate-confirmed heads of the Veterans Health Administration, the health system that supports care of a 20-million patient population, and the Office of Information and Technology, the $4 billion IT shop that procures and manages the agency's tech and cybersecurity.

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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