You know, the title actually, interestingly, has a double meaning. First of all, the book is really for veterans and about veterans. And so I believe when you raise your hand to defend the country, you go off and you come back and you need our help, that it shouldn’t be this hard to get the help that you need. And so the bureaucracy that veterans in the past have experienced — the wait times; the trouble accessing services; the continued issues they’re having with getting the benefits that they deserve, including [some] Vietnam veterans who are now waiting more than 50 years [and] still can’t get the benefits from exposure to Agent Orange — it just shouldn’t be that hard. But of course, then the second meaning has to do with when you go into public service, whether you’re a career employee or whether you’re a political appointee going in to serve your government, that this should not be the experience that people are exposed to, the environment of personal attacks, the underhandedness and the sabotage of people trying to do their jobs. And we’re still seeing the same thing happening today.
You’re referring there, I guess, [to] the news today, or the news of the recent months of folks —
I mean, I don’t know if I can keep up with today. It seems like it’s almost every day. You know, whether it’s the Ukrainian ambassador, or whether it was the acting secretary of homeland security, whether it was [Army Lt. Col. Alexander] Vindman, you know, who was the Purple Heart recipient. It just seems like this is a constant drumbeat of a very similar pattern of behavior, where we have to make sure that people who are trying to do the right thing in their jobs are allowed to do the job that they were put in place to do.
You describe [in your book] this group that you nickname “the politicals,” who loom large as your tenure carries on. What were they up to?
Well, when an administration changes over on January 20th, each agency then gets their allocated number of political appointees. At VA, we had about 30 political appointees, and most of these political appointees who then take on leadership roles in the organization were dedicated, focused on their jobs and did a great job. But there was a handful of them that frankly, you know, had a belief that the department should be headed in a different direction and worked against me and ultimately tried and were successful in seeing me removed.
And what was [that] different direction? I think you’re talking about an emphasis on privatization [of VA health care]?
Yeah, that’s the issue that I believe that I had the strongest policy differences on with this group.
You describe a situation where you couldn’t pick many key people on your own staff, you couldn’t fire them, you couldn’t trust your own spokespeople. That seems like an untenable situation for a manager, a [Cabinet] secretary.
There was a memo that was left by mistake by one of these political appointees that actually detailed their plans to replace me. I did not feel like I could ignore this, nor do I feel like any chief executive could ignore that type of undercutting in their own organization. And I did seek to make personnel changes based upon that. And I was blocked in doing that by the White House.
You write that you “never doubted the president’s intention to do the right thing for veterans,” and yet, at the same time, you describe how he’s presiding over a government where political forces can meddle via back channels, and then that can end up undermining the work for veterans.
I know it sounds very confusing, but I ultimately came to see that there was a dual decision-making path even within the White House. There were those that were in the West Wing, including the president and General [John] Kelly [then chief of staff], that I would have direct communications with. And then there was a group of policymakers within the White House that clearly pursued different approaches. And so when I would have conversations with the president and General Kelly, I would feel like there was an alignment of principles and an alignment of direction, only to often find out that that had been changed by a new group coming in and sharing their views on things.
You fault the media, including The Washington Post, for mischaracterizing your official trip to London and Copenhagen, which led to an inspector general’s report on your expenses, endless leaks and bad publicity. [The Post stands by its reporting.] Can you talk about what you learned about the media, anonymous sources and what it’s like to be in a media firestorm?
Thank you for that question. It’s sort of more general about the press and covering the environment today. It has, in my opinion, allowed itself to be somewhat manipulated by what we’re seeing today, which is allowing issues to take a life of their own, take away the attention from the real work and what’s important for government to be focused on and important in servicing the American people. It’s focused a lot on scandal and allegations. And what I have described as my frustration is that somebody who wants to take the focus away from an agency like VA makes an allegation. The allegation takes on a life of its own. And then other reporters report on that, and before you know it, you have created a very, very large issue that, frankly, may not have been appropriately validated and sourced.
Now, this original issue with The Washington Post, when I ultimately had a chance to talk to the reporters that wrote it, I said, “Why didn’t you come and talk to me?” Because I’d always been accessible to the press. What they told me surprised me, which is that they did. They asked to talk to me and interview me before publication. But they were blocked by the public affairs office, and I never was told that they were seeking to reach me. That’s when I started to give out my personal cell number to reporters because I never wanted to be in a position where a reporter didn’t have access to checking facts before they went to print.
Do you think that the publicity stretching back to that trip was why you were ousted, or why do you think you were really pushed out?
I believed I was fired because I was seen as not being willing to go along with the policy direction that the people in the White House wanted me to go along with over this issue of privatization. I had shown several times before that I was willing to speak out, even if it meant speaking out against the position of the White House, and that I was not willing to be muzzled. And I think, you know, by me doing my own interviews, by giving out my cellphone [number to reporters], that was extremely irritating to the White House. I believe that it was important to be able to speak out because I was there to help move the agenda forward for veterans. I wasn't there to join a political administration or to do the work of the Trump administration.
It sounds like this gradual tightening of the circle around you — you know, leaks and lack of trust. You write that it was almost like a reality TV series called “White House Apprentice.”
Increasingly, I was seeing this type of pressure being put around me. When my chief of staff resigned and I was forced to take a political as a chief of staff — you know, I had picked a career employee as chief of staff — and when I was forced to take a political person as chief of staff, you could see that the White House began to deal almost exclusively with that political chief of staff. And I was increasingly being given direction through the White House, through the chief of staff, as to what I should do and what I shouldn’t do. You could see the change. The desire to control what I said and my actions and where I went was changing in a dramatic way.
Trump has become famous for firing people by tweet. But I think yours is the first inside account of administration officials who’ve been fired by tweet.
I had had a conversation with the president that day where it was a conversation where we focused on what I was trying to achieve for the veterans. And we talked about the policies then, the changes that we were working on, and I felt that it was a good, interactive dialogue about issues like we normally had. And then five hours later I was surprised by the tweet.
I know you’re proud of several key policy objectives that got enacted. You mentioned the 11 [pieces of legislation] during your time, and then at least three or four in the months afterward, which included work toward restructuring the VA, work on electronic records, increasing [health-care] choice for veterans, working on suicide prevention. Given those successes, was it worth it?
Oh, absolutely. And while I acknowledge that, especially toward the end, this was a very painful experience for both me and my family, when I think about the sacrifices that we made and I made, it is nothing compared to the men and women that I've had a chance to meet who have literally sacrificed everything for their country. And so they're the ones that inspire me, and they're the ones that kept me going.
You write that the VA is still “in grave danger.” What concerns you?
Well, I don’t believe that the people that were working hard to dismantle the VA and to privatize it have gone away. I believe they’ve gone undercover. So I think we have to be very vigilant about what policies we pursue and what’s happening in the VA. Now, at the same time, I’m very optimistic about many of the things I’m seeing in the VA and the continuation of the policies that I worked hard for.
This interview has been edited and condensed. David Montgomery is a staff writer for the magazine. Follow him on Twitter @dmontyjr.