President Donald Trump announced Friday that he is nominating Robert Wilkie to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, three weeks after his previous nominee withdrew from the confirmation process amid controversy.
Wilkie is currently the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness but has been serving as the VA's acting secretary since the President fired VA Secretary David Shulkin in late March. But Trump said the announcement came as a surprise even to Wilkie.
"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 of the Veterans Administration," Trump said, before shaking Wilkie's hand. "I'm sorry that I ruined the surprise. I'll see you anyway."
Wilkie's nomination capped a tumultuous seven weeks since the President fired VA Secretary David Shulkin and nominated White House physician Ronny Jackson to replace him, only to watch Jackson's nomination flame out amid allegations of improper behavior during his time at the helm of the White House medical unit.
Trump made the announcement during an unrelated White House event on prison reform and as news coverage of the latest mass shooting in America blanketed the airwaves. He delivered the VA news moments after expressing his "sadness and heartbreak" over the Santa Fe, Texas, school shooting.
With Wilkie's nomination, the President will look to move past the failed nomination of Jackson, who was first viewed as unqualified to lead the federal government's second-largest department, but whose nomination was ultimately stymied by a series of allegations leveled by nearly two dozen of his current and former colleagues.
Jackson denied the allegations of abusive behavior, drinking on the job and loosely prescribing medication, but withdrew from consideration because he said the allegations had "become a distraction" to Trump's agenda.
Views unclear but has military experience
Since being named to lead VA in an acting capacity, Wilkie has been working to steady the agency, meeting with employees to discuss their jobs, according to an agency source.
But his views on how fully to shift care for veterans into the private sector and other high-profile issues facing the agency remain unclear.
In an introductory three-minute video message to VA staff soon after taking the job, Wilkie stressed his background as the son of an Army artillery commander and service as a Navy intelligence officer. He was a senior Pentagon staffer under Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Donald Rumsfeld.
While serving in the VA's top job in an acting capacity, Wilkie had received praise from White House insiders and veterans' groups for the job he had done.
But some veterans' groups chafed at his appointment, calling on Trump to remove Wilkie after he was nominated, and instead give the job to Thomas Bowman, the VA's deputy secretary, whom the White House passed over for the job of acting secretary.
In Wilkie's acting capacity, he oversaw the approval of a critical contract, the $10 billion deal with Cerner Corporation to overhaul the health records of millions of veterans.
Wilkie appeared at the White House press briefing Thursday, and praised the passage of House legislation that, if it becomes law, would give veterans more freedom to see doctors outside the VA's health care system.
The bill passed the House in a bipartisan fashion, despite concerns from some Democrats who viewed it as a step toward dismantling the VA health care system.
However, the move fulfilled a campaign pledge of Trump to expand private care for veterans who are dissatisfied with the healthcare they receive in VA's system.