Trump Nominates Acting VA Secretary Wilkie to Keep Post Permanently

President Donald Trump shakes hands with acting Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie after announcing he will nominate him to lead the department during an event on prison reform in the East Room of the White House, Friday, May 18, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump shakes hands with acting Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie after announcing he will nominate him to lead the department during an event on prison reform in the East Room of the White House, Friday, May 18, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump nominated Acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie on Thursday to stay on the job as the new head of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Trump's announcement came as Wilkie attended an unrelated White House event and appeared to catch him unawares.

"Acting Secretary Wilkie -- who, 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," Trump said.

"I'm sorry that I ruined the surprise," the president said before shaking Wilkie's hand.

Wilkie has been serving as acting VA secretary since early April following Trump's firing of the previous secretary, Dr. David Shulkin, in March.

Wilkie had been settling in as the Pentagon's undersecretary for personnel and readiness when he took what was then believed to be the temporary assignment as acting VA secretary.

Trump's first choice to replace Shulkin was Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, his personal physician and head of the White house medical unit.

Jackson's nomination flamed out over charges that he lacked managerial experience and allegations -- never proven -- that he drank on the job and mishandled prescriptions. He withdrew his name from consideration.

The nomination of Wilkie was Trump's latest surprise move in his oversight of the VA, which he had pledged to reform during the presidential campaign. Veterans were believed to have been one of his main constituencies in defeating Hillary Clinton.

His nomination of Shulkin, who became the only holdover from the Obama administration in his cabinet, was also a surprise. Trump had interviewed several other candidates before settling on Shulkin.

In his short time at the VA, Wilkie has lined up with the Trump administration's push to expand private health care options for veterans. On Wednesday. Wilkie announced the signing of a 10-year, $10 billion contract with Cerner Corp. to provide the VA for the first time with electronic health records.

Major Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) had previously expressed concerns that a rapid expansion of private care options could lead to the "privatization" of the VA, but their initial reaction to Wilkie's nomination was positive.

Garry Augustine, executive director of the Washington headquarters of Disabled American Veterans, said that Wilkie as acting secretary "has taken it upon himself to work closely with the VSO community to better understand the needs facing our nation's heroes."

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a statement: "I commend President Trump for this selection and believe Acting Secretary Wilkie would be an effective permanent secretary."

Roe said Wilkie had been "instrumental" in lining up support for the VA Mission Act, which passed overwhelmingly in the House on Wednesday. The bill, which has bipartisan support in the Senate, would provide $5.2 billion to extend and reform the current Veterans Choice Program on private-care options.

The two-million-member American Legion noted that the VA had been without a permanent secretary for 51 days as of Friday, and urged the Senate to schedule a confirmation hearing on Wilkie's nomination quickly.

In a statement, Denise Rohan, national commander of the Legion, also said that the signing Thursday of the electronic health records contract was "an important down payment on the strategic future of the VA. We commend the acting secretary for completing this important deal."

Wilkie, 55, an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve, is a lawyer with experience on Capitol Hill and at the White House.

He received his bachelor's degree from Wake Forest University in North Carolina and a law degree from Loyola University School of Law in New Orleans. He received Master of Laws in International and Comparative Law from Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.

Wilkie's first work in Congress was as counsel to then-Sen. Jesse Helms, R-North Carolina. He later worked at the White House as a senior policy adviser to then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Wilkie has already been confirmed by the Senate twice for Pentagon posts, which is expected to improve his chances to become VA secretary.

He previously served in the Pentagon as assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs during the administration of President George W. Bush. He began serving as undersecretary for personnel and readiness last Nov. 30.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.

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