What To Know About Trump's VA Secretary Nominee Robert Wilkie

Jun 27, 2018
Originally published on July 6, 2018 8:26 pm
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Trump is trying again to fill the post of secretary of Veterans Affairs. The president fired his first VA secretary. His second choice, the White House doctor, had to withdraw. And the third choice is Robert Wilkie, who's been a veteran federal official and faces a Senate committee today. What's at stake? Just overseeing the health and benefits of nearly 20 million American veterans. NPR's Quil Lawrence covers veterans issues. He's in our studios. Quil, good morning. Good to see you.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is the state of the agency that Wilkie would take over?

LAWRENCE: I mean, it's a large - it's the largest health network in the country where, on the one hand, vets generally love the care they get but universally despise the red tape. I mean, it's an entrenched, huge bureaucracy. There are over 350,000 employees at the VA. They've just passed a large set of reforms to try and make that work better. But it's all about this next secretary, how he's going to implement them. And there's already sort of some concerns set up that the White House is lukewarm on funding some of these new reforms. So that's a coming battle between Congress and the president.

INSKEEP: So questions about the direction of the agency, and you've been reporting on the agency itself and a controversy over how the agency polices itself in a sense, what happens with whistleblowers who call out problems.

LAWRENCE: Right, and some awesome (ph) reporting from our Eric Westervelt on this. Yeah, there's a big problem with whistleblowers when they call out problems at the VA. They often face reprisals. The current acting secretary is Peter O'Rourke, a Trump political appointee. And he is in a fight right now with the VA's inspector general, who's supposed to be looking into these whistleblower complaints. The inspector general says O'Rourke is denying him access to these whistleblower complaints. And we can probably expect some questions about that at the hearing.

INSKEEP: And those would be questions, of course, for Robert Wilkie, the nominee. Who is he, and where does he fit into all of this?

LAWRENCE: So he's a veteran. He served in the Navy, and also, he's currently a reservist in the Air Force, so that's important to this community. He's worked for decades in the Pentagon and in Congress before that with senators like Jesse Helms, Trent Lott, people on the far-right Republican end of the spectrum. He's been doing personnel and readiness at the Pentagon, so he's got some experience with these sort of issues.

INSKEEP: Is there any sense of a controversy with Wilkie the way there was with the previous nominee?

LAWRENCE: No. I mean, the previous nominee, the White House physician, Ronny L. Jackson, really apparently had no vetting at all from the president. And that resulted in what could have been a private withdrawal turning into a very public rejection over all these charges of misconduct, which came to light. Wilkie's had a couple of hiccups. People have taken issue. The Washington Post reporting this week that some of the statements he made when he was working for Senator Jesse Helms in defense of the Confederate flag, et cetera, those might come up in the hearing. He was also involved in implementing the ban on transgender troops under the Trump administration. That might come up. But he's got a lot of experience with Congress, and they really want to fill this post.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, Quil, does he want to privatize any part of VA care, which is something that people have talked about?

LAWRENCE: You can absolutely expect the Congress to extract a promise from him that he will not. Veterans universally oppose privatizing VA care, but there is a push from Trump political appointees to move more VA money into the private sector.

INSKEEP: Quil, pleasure talking with you. Thanks very much.

LAWRENCE: Likewise.

INSKEEP: NPR's Quil Lawrence.

[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: In this report, Quil Lawrence misspoke when he said, "Veterans universally oppose privatizing VA care." He meant to say that Veterans Service Organizations, not veterans, are against privatization.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.