Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said Wednesday that he is “outraged” by what he saw from Nazis and white supremacists during a deadly altercation Saturday in Charlottesville but that he declined to tell President Trump it was wrong for him to equate their violence with that of counterprotesters who stood up to them.
Shulkin, who is Jewish, spoke to reporters and said that although he serves Trump, he does not speak for him. Trump has done “a good job of making clear his comments” about the melee in Charlottesville, and has denounced bigotry, hatred, violence, Nazis and white supremacists, Shulkin said.
Shulkin’s appearance came toward the end of a day in which Trump administration officials were asked whether they agree with the president’s controversial comments Tuesday. Trump said there was violence “on both sides” in Charlottesville, and that there were some “fine people” among those protesting alongside white supremacists against the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Shulkin, who served in the Obama administration and was kept on under Trump, said that the president can speak for himself.
He then offered his own thoughts: “I do feel like as an American and as a member of the Cabinet, that I can speak for my own personal opinions on this, and I am outraged by the behavior that I have seen with the Nazis and the white supremacists. I am outraged on the use of violence — to be able to put one’s ideals, and force them upon others.”
Shulkin said it is “a dishonor to our country’s veterans for the Nazis and the white supremacists to go unchallenged, and that we all have to speak up about this as Americans.” To underscore his belief in the need to speak up, he cited a poem from Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller, a vocal critic of Adolf Hitler who wrote the famous lines beginning with, “First they came for the Socialists.”
The VA secretary said that he spent time with the president Saturday as violence flared, and that Trump expressed frustration about it then. The two leaders met again Wednesday to discussion veterans’ issues but did not discuss anything else.
Shulkin said he believes Trump wants Americans to stand up for what they believe in, and against bigotry and hatred.
“I strongly believe that, and I believe that history teaches us that if we don’t do that, we’re going to get ourselves down a road that isn’t consistent with what America stands for,” Shulkin said. He added that “staying silent on these issues is not acceptable,” and that he will continue to speak up for things that he believes are important.