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New Veterans Affairs chief plans to reassign, sideline Trump loyalists now in power

Robert Wilkie is set to be sworn in as President Trump’s Veterans Affairs secretary on Monday. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

In one of his first acts as President Trump’s Veterans Affairs secretary, Robert Wilkie intends to reassign several high-ranking political appointees at the center of the agency’s ongoing morale crisis and staffing exodus, according to three people familiar with his plans.

Wilkie, who will be sworn in Monday, wants to form his own leadership team, these people say, and to ease lawmakers’ continued concern that VA, historically a nonpartisan corner of the government, has become highly politicized. He discussed the proposed personnel moves with Trump in recent days aboard Air Force One, while en route to a veterans convention in Kansas City, Mo., said an official close to the White House who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

Announcements could come as soon as this week, pending approval from the White House Personnel Office.

Veterans Affairs acting secretary Robert Wilkie addressed his department in a video message on April 4, saying "This is a noble calling." (Video: U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs)

Carla Gleason, a spokeswoman for Wilkie, declined to comment on specific reassignments, saying in an email this past week that “any leadership changes will be announced next week.” VA officials referred a request for comment to the White House press office, which did not respond.

John Hoellwarth, communications director for AMVETS, an advocacy group with more than 250,000 members, praised Wilkie for acting quickly to ensure that VA “is driven by a desire to serve veterans first.”

“Over the last year at VA, widely publicized internal political turmoil among senior officials has gotten in the way of serving veterans,” Hoellwarth said, “and it seems like Wilkie is acting decisively to stamp that out on his watch.”

Trump loyalists at VA shuffling, purging employees before new secretary takes over

The changes would sideline much of VA’s interim leadership team under acting secretary Peter O’Rourke, who drew unfavorable reviews from lawmakers in both political parties following a dispute with the agency’s inspector general and a Washington Post report that highlighted O’Rourke’s efforts to purge civil servants and some political appointees whom he and others installed by Trump deemed unsupportive of the president’s agenda.

O’Rourke, a former Trump campaign worker, will be reassigned to a less visible role overseeing a new office focused on improving VA operations, according to people familiar with Wilkie’s plans. The position does not require Senate confirmation.

O’Rourke and others who face reassignment have told Congress they were trying to improve the effectiveness of an agency that has long struggled to provide timely health care and benefits to veterans, and to root out poor performers. Instead, they have estranged many career staffers who serve veterans day-to-day.

Wilkie, who oversaw military personnel policy at the Pentagon before Trump tapped him to lead VA, is expected to name Pamela Powers his chief of staff, according to people familiar with Wilkie’s plans. She has filled that role for him at the Defense Department.

VA’s general counsel, James Byrne, a Trump appointee, is expected be named acting deputy secretary. The role has been vacant since Thomas Bowman retired in June. Bowman was isolated by O’Rourke and the other appointees, who viewed him as too moderate.

White House targets VA’s deputy secretary as ‘a warning shot’ to agency’s leader

Wilkie will face multiple challenges leading VA, which has lacked a permanent leader since Trump fired former secretary David Shulkin in March amid a highly publicized power struggle between Shulkin and O’Rourke and his team.

VA has numerous leadership vacancies. There is no permanent deputy secretary, the department’s No. 2 leadership post; there is no undersecretary for VA’s health system, the largest in the country; there is no deputy undersecretary for health; there is no assistant secretary for information technology. Additionally, dozens of senior-level staff have departed VA amid the turmoil that has marked the past six months, leaving numerous vacancies.

Other expected reassignments include Jacquelyn Hayes-Byrd, VA’s deputy chief of staff, who has served as acting chief of staff since May and carried out the reassignments of many civil servants. Hayes-Byrd may take an acting role in human resources, according to two people familiar with Wilkie’s thinking.

John Ullyot, VA’s assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs, will likely be reassigned to a role running internal communications, these people said. Ullyot, a former Senate aide, openly clashed with Shulkin and left VA on paid leave for several weeks at the end of Shulkin’s tenure, returning after the secretary’s firing.

VA press secretary Curt Cashour, a former Capitol Hill aide who has clashed with reporters, is said to be searching for another job in the Trump administration, according to people familiar with the matter.

Camilo Sandoval, acting chief information officer and the former director of data operations for Trump’s campaign — who received poor reviews from lawmakers on his progress overseeing a $16 billion project to modernize VA’s electronic health records system — is expected to leave the administration in coming months, according to a person familiar with his plans.

After The Post’s report revealed that O’Rourke had taken aggressive steps to sideline or reassign employees who were perceived to be disloyal, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) moved quickly to get Wilkie in place. Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.), the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and seven other Senate Democrats have called for an investigation into political interference in VA’s “transparency processes.”

Three House Democrats this month called on the Justice Department to investigate whether O’Rourke lied during congressional testimony related to a VA inspector general investigation of the agency’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.

During Wilkie’s confirmation hearing in June, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) told the nominee that sinking morale at VA would be Wilkie’s biggest challenge. According to data compiled by the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, more than 26,000 full-time employees left VA last year, with most quitting or retiring.