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Trump to nominate acting Veterans Affairs secretary Robert Wilkie to be the agency’s permanent leader

President Trump shakes hands with acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, during an event on prison reform in the East Room of the White House on Friday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

President Trump on Friday nominated the Department of Veterans Affairs’ acting secretary, Robert Wilkie, as its permanent leader, choosing a Washington insider to restore confidence in an agency roiled by political infighting.

Wilkie, 55, is an officer in the Air Force Reserve who has worked on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon under two presidents. He was unaware Trump’s announcement was coming, although he was a leading contender for the job and recently flew to the president’s private Mar-a-Lago Club in South Florida to meet with Marvel Entertainment chief executive Ike Perlmutter, an unofficial adviser to Trump on veterans issues.

“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 Friday during a White House event at which Wilkie was present. The president added that Wilkie has done “an incredible job” as VA’s acting secretary.

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Wilkie has told colleagues he plans to step down from his acting role next week and return to the Defense Department, where he is undersecretary for personnel and readiness, while his nomination is pending before the Senate. The federal Vacancies Reform Act prohibits someone in an acting role from being nominated to serve in the top position permanently.

Wilkie could bring stability to VA’s sprawling $186 billion health-care, benefits and cemetery system, which during Trump’s 16 months in office has grown more dysfunctional despite the president’s campaign pledge to deliver reform.

VA has long struggled with how to give a growing number of Vietnam-era veterans and those returning from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan access to timely health care. Wilkie will likely face questions from senators about how far he would go to shift medical appointments to the private sector at taxpayer expense — an issue that led Trump to fire David Shulkin from the Cabinet post in March.

The Trump administration has advocated an aggressive expansion of private-sector options, a policy the White House came to believe Shulkin was not pushing hard enough. Shulkin, in response, accused a group of Trump political aides of plotting to oust him.

Wilkie’s rise follows Trump’s failed nomination of Rear Adm. Ronny L. Jackson to be VA secretary. Jackson, who as the White House physician gave Trump a glowing review after his annual physical, faced widespread criticism over his lack of managerial experience, with lawmakers, veterans advocates and former White House colleagues questioning his qualifications to lead the government’s second-largest agency.

Jackson was forced to withdraw from consideration after colleagues and subordinates in the White House medical unit approached Congress with explosive misconduct allegations — claims he has denied. The tumultuous ordeal embarrassed the White House and attracted scrutiny to its vetting process for top-level jobs.

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Wilkie, by comparison, represents a safe choice, given that the Senate unanimously approved his nomination to the Pentagon post last year.

As acting secretary, he has pushed a new program that would hold baby showers for women who use VA’s hospital system and this week announced a multibillion-dollar deal, begun by Shulkin, to sync veterans’ medical records with those maintained by the Defense Department and a growing number of private health-care providers. Though his tenure at VA has been brief, Wilkie has impressed the leaders of several veterans groups, whose millions of members form one of Trump’s core constituencies.

“With more than a decade of service as an Undersecretary for the Department of Defense, Mr. Wilkie has considerable experience navigating federal government policies,” Garry Augustine, executive director of the Disabled American Veterans, said in a statement.

But the department faces myriad challenges, including a shortage of doctors and nurses and the departure in recent months of dozen of senior leaders who had grown disenchanted with VA’s internal politics. It is unclear whether Wilkie will bring on his own staff or whether the current political appointees with whom Shulkin feuded will remain at VA.

Senators who offered only lukewarm praise for Jackson were far more forthcoming about Wilkie.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) praised Wilkie in a statement as an “outstanding choice” who is “well qualified” to lead VA.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), for whom Wilkie worked as a senior adviser, sought to reassure Democrats concerned that VA is outsourcing too much health care. “He understands that while the VA Choice Program was born out of necessity, nothing beats the value of a veteran receiving world-class care from highly qualified medical professionals at the VA,” Tillis said in a statement.

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Wilkie, a native of Fayetteville, N.C., is well known on Capitol Hill as a longtime Senate staffer who worked for former Sens. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and, most recently, Tillis. And perhaps no one is better prepared to confront the potentially thorny Senate confirmation hearing that awaits. He spent years at the Pentagon during the George W. Bush administration preparing senior leaders for appearances before Congress.

Wilkie was part of the team who in 2007 prepared Gen. David H. Petraeus, then the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, then the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, for a high-stakes hearing about the war there. He led them through what’s known as a murder board — a session in which officials prepare witnesses to answer tough questions.

The hearing came at a difficult moment for the military, with Democrats threatening to withdraw funding for the war effort and pressure mounting to prove a new strategy was working. Wilkie, then assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs, was “enormously helpful,” Petraeus recalled.

“He had a very detailed understanding of the committee members and that proved very valuable,” the retired general said.

Crocker recalled the thoughtful questions Wilkie posed during those sessions. “I remember walking away from it thinking that it had been a good exercise all the way around, and that he had done an excellent job thinking his way through this stuff,” Crocker said.

During his brief tenure working for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Wilkie handled some of the most controversial issues that arose at the Pentagon during the first months of the Trump administration, including the fallout from Trump’s surprise Twitter announcement that his administration would ban transgender men and women from serving in the military. The move, accompanied by a presidential memo directing Mattis to reinstitute the ban lifted by the Obama administration, put the Pentagon at the center of a heated civil rights debate.

When Mattis issued his recommendations to Trump — none of which have taken effect due to legal challenges — he included an analysis justifying his plan to grandfather in transgender men and women already in the ranks but mostly block others from joining. The analysis, Mattis told Trump, was based on conclusions prepared by Wilkie and his staff. It said the new policy shouldn’t be viewed as “reflecting poorly on transgender persons,” highlighting that the “vast majority” of Americans are also ineligible to join the military owing to mental, medical and behavioral factors.

Groups critical of that stance have denounced Wilkie’s nomination to lead VA, noting there are tens of thousands of transgender military veterans who rely on the agency’s medical facilities for their health care.

Jenna Johnson, Seung Min Kim, Emily Wax-Thibodeaux and Erica Werner contributed to this report.