President Donald Trump has expressed dissatisfaction with his Veterans Affairs secretary, Dr. David Shulkin, and has discussed replacing him, two people familiar with the matter said.
Trump made his frustrations known during a White House lunch on Monday with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the people said. The encounter came a day before the president fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Perry, a former governor of Texas, and Trump discussed veterans health issues, the people said. Although Perry’s name has surfaced as a possible replacement for Shulkin, the president didn’t ask Perry on Monday to take over Veterans Affairs, they said.
Trump has talked about firing Shulkin but was still weighing the question Tuesday, the people said.
Shulkin, 58, a physician and former hospital administrator, has become embroiled in internal disputes with Trump administration officials, people familiar with the situation said.
He took office in February 2017 following a unanimous vote by the Senate. He is a holdover from the Obama administration, where he served as undersecretary for health overseeing medical facilities run by the VA, which provides care for more than 9 million enrolled veterans.
He came into office with a pledge to bring greater accountability to the agency and to improve veterans’ access to care, and not to privatize the department.
Scrutiny of European Trip
Conservative veterans advocates fully supported Shulkin until a few weeks ago when the agency’s inspector general said that he had improperly used government funds during a trip to Europe and his chief of staff tried to cover it up.
Shulkin began publicly complaining that people were colluding to push him out, including political appointees at the VA and White House, as well as operatives with Concerned Veterans for America, part of billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch’s network.
Trump became irritated with Shulkin for publicly claiming that he has to fire people and purge his agency of Trump appointees, two people said.
In July 2017, Shulkin traveled to Denmark and Britain with senior department leaders, his wife, and a six-member security detail, according to a February report by the VA’s inspector general. The 11-day trip included three and a half days of official events and cost at least $122,334, the report said. It found Shulkin improperly accepted two tickets to the ladies’ final match at Wimbledon.
The report of Shulkin’s travel stoked tensions within the agency, and he reduced contacts with Trump’s political appointees and installed an armed guard outside his office, according to a March 9 report in the Washington Post. Tensions center around plans to direct more spending on veterans’ care to private facilities than Shulkin favors, according to a Feb. 16 ProPublica report.
On March 7, the VA inspector general’s report said “failures in leadership” had led to critical deficiencies at the VA’s medical center in Washington, where inventories weren’t properly maintained and patient records weren’t stored in unsecured areas. At times, doctors needed to borrow supplies from a nearby hospital, according to the report. Shulkin told interviewers he didn’t recall senior leaders bringing the center’s issues to his attention when he was under secretary overseeing medical facilities, according to the report.
Shulkin told lawmakers that he regretted decisions “that have taken the focus off” the VA’s work, and said he would reimburse costs as recommended by the inspector general, who called for repayments for the Wimbledon tickets and the airfare for Shulkin’s wife.
The Shulkin trip is among several by Trump administration officials who have been criticized for lavish travel funded by taxpayers. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt relied on first-class flights, racking up a $1,641.43 bill for a trip between Washington and New York, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price stepped down after taking flights with a total cost exceeding $1 million.
In addition, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson came under fire over reports that he had ordered a dining room set for his office that cost more than $30,000.