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Shulkin says he did not leave office willingly, setting up fight over his successor

Former veterans affairs secretary David Shulkin said he did not voluntarily leave his office and lawmakers weighed in on the future of the VA. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

Former veterans affairs secretary David Shulkin said Sunday that he did not voluntarily leave his office, clashing with the White House’s description of his exit and adding to questions about who will run the department until a new secretary is confirmed.

“I would not resign, because I’m committed to making sure this job was seen through to the very end,” Shulkin said in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” with Jake Tapper. “I did not resign.”

Shulkin made similar comments on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” saying that he did not submit a letter of resignation, and was not asked to.

Whether Shulkin resigned or was fired would have bearing on who leads the Department of Veterans Affairs until the president’s nominee, Navy Rear Adm. Ronny L. Jackson, is confirmed by the Senate. According to federal statutes, the departure of a Senate-confirmed secretary elevates the department’s deputy secretary to that position until a permanent replacement arrives.

But VA’s deputy secretary, Thomas G. Bowman, has already been passed over by a White House that has wanted to overhaul the department’s leadership. Robert Wilkie, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, is now running VA. The Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 empowers the president to bypass a deputy and install anyone who has been confirmed by the Senate for any position “to perform the functions and duties of the vacant office temporarily in an acting capacity.”

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The White House previously used that power to install Mick Mulvaney, the Senate-confirmed OMB director, to lead the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, a move that is still being litigated by CFPB Deputy Director Leandra English. But Mulvaney’s predecessor, Richard Cordray, had resigned to run for governor of Ohio. Shulkin told The Washington Post on Friday, as he told CNN on Sunday, that he did not resign and was instead fired after being undermined by political appointees.

“I don’t think that this was the president,” Shulkin told Tapper. “The president is committed to improving the care for veterans. These appointees had a belief that there was a different way to do that than I did … these individuals, when they didn’t see that their way was being adopted, used subversive techniques to change the leadership at VA.”

Shulkin’s description of what happened clashes with that of the Trump administration. On Friday, Shulkin told The Post that he was told by White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly that he was being pushed out. But Saturday, deputy White House press secretary Lindsay Walters told Politico that “Secretary Shulkin resigned from his position as Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.” Asked on Sunday about Shulkin’s description of what happened, Walters repeated that statement.

The questions about Shulkin’s removal may well end up in court. Democrats, who, like Shulkin, believe that the Trump administration is attempting to elevate people who favor privatizing VA’s services, could sue over any major decisions made by Wilkie, arguing that the 1998 law on vacancies does not apply when appointees are fired.

“I would strongly suspect that, if you get rid of Shulkin, who opposed privatization, and you put Dr. Jackson in, that is what his mission will be,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who caucuses with Democrats, said Sunday on CNN. “Without exception, the major veterans organizations say, we have got to strengthen VA, not dismember it, not privatize it. And I will do everything I can as a member of the veterans committee not to approve any nominee who is not going to strengthen VA and who will oppose privatization.”

The prospect of an acting VA secretary making decisions and then facing legal action also worries some advocacy groups. “That uncertainty creates risk, which is a real problem,” said Max Stier, the president of the Partnership for Public Service. “I don’t believe any court has opined on this as of yet. It is uncertainty piled on top of uncertainty with real harm being caused to the VA and veterans.”

Lisa Rein contributed to this report.