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‘Failure is not an option’: VA nominee Robert Wilkie told to fix the agency’s morale crisis

Robert Wilkie, nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, testifies Wednesday before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
Robert Wilkie, nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, testifies Wednesday before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Senate lawmakers told Robert Wilkie on Wednesday that he will face a workforce beset by poor morale if he is confirmed to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, and that he must fix the problem if he is to stabilize the troubled agency.

“Of all the challenges we have at VA, morale may be the biggest problem,” Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) told Wilkie during the 90-minute confirmation hearing, where the senior Pentagon official pledged to “shake up complacency” at the second-largest federal department and implement a health-care overhaul that would expand private care for veterans.

“You are getting an agency that has problems, that’s in need of help,” Isakson said. “There are no excuses anymore. Failure is not an option. We want to fix it before things fester.”

Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, was more blunt, telling Wilkie that under the Trump administration, internal politics have undermined VA’s mission of serving veterans.

“We are seeing VA leadership — none of whom have been confirmed — lash out at anyone seeking true transparency,” Tester said, describing an agency that has become so politicized that career senior leaders are departing in droves.

“Recently we have seen VA political appointees work actively and publicly to undermine a secretary and deputy secretary who were unanimously confirmed by the Senate,” Tester told Wilkie, referring to President Trump’s firing in March of then-Secretary David Shulkin and the ouster last month of the agency’s No. 2 official, Thomas Bowman. Shulkin had accused political operatives at VA of undermining him and plotting to remove him.

Many of the departing career employees “are concerned that sound policies and ideas are being increasingly marginalized at the expense of political interests,” Tester told Wilkie.

“I hope you agree that that type of behavior undermines the VA’s mission.”

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Wilkie, 55, tried to reassure the committee that he would stand up to the White House and VA’s political leadership to improve veterans’ care even if it meant disagreeing with Trump on occasion.

“I have been privileged to work for some of the most high-powered people in town,” said Wilkie, who started his career as an aide to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and served Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

“They pay me for my opinions and I give those to them.”

Wilkie also promised not to interfere with the work of the agency’s inspector general, who has said that acting VA Secretary Peter O’Rourke has denied him records for an investigation. O’Rourke has come under fire from lawmakers for inaccurately calling the watchdog someone who “works for him,” according to internal correspondence released in recent weeks by Democrats.

Wilkie, an Air Force reserve officer and the son of an Army artillery commander who was severely wounded in Vietnam, is now in charge of military personnel policy for the Trump administration. He has spent three decades working in Washington on military and national security issues, developing deep connections on Capitol Hill and in the White House.

Wilkie grew up visiting American battlefields with his father and developed a lifelong fascination with military history. His ancestors fought for the Confederacy.

He was pressed by some committee Democrats to explain his past embrace of divisive cultural issues during a long career working for polarizing political figures.

Trumps VA pick is a longtime aide to polarizing figures in Washington

Wilkie counts Helms, a five-term Senate firebrand who denounced the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and once called gay people “weak, morally sick wretches,” as a mentor. He defended Lott, who lost his leadership post after defending Strom Thurmond’s segregationist campaign for president decades earlier.

Wilkie also was a member and supporter of organizations dedicated to preserving Confederate memorials and honoring the Confederacy.

“I will say, and I say it respectfully, I welcome the scrutiny of my entire record,” he told Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). He said that an article published this week in The Washington Post “seemed to stop at my record about 25 years ago.”

“If I had been what The Washington Post implied, I don’t think I would have been able to work for Condoleezza Rice or Bob Gates or Jim Mattis,” Wilkie said, referring to the former national security adviser and former and current defense secretaries.

Wilkie said he has passed as many as nine FBI background investigations.

As for his attendance at ceremonies honoring Confederate figures until the mid-2000s, he said, “those events in those days were big events” attended by senators and House members and accepted by Republican and Democratic administrations.

“I stopped doing many of those things at a time when that issue became divisive,” he said.

“I do believe that . . . we honor all veterans.”

Asked by Hirono how he came to rebut a Democratic proposal in 1997 to ensure equal pay for working women, Wilkie said proposed changes to the measure were made by others on Lott’s staff. He also said he did not remember making the change in question.

Asked Wednesday whether he thinks that women, including veterans, should have to finish high school to receive government benefits, Wilkie said, “That would never enter my mind.”

Wilkie said that if confirmed, he would carry out the mandate of newly passed legislation that calls for expanding private health care for veterans. But he said private care would not replace VA, a long-standing fear among Democrats.

“VA for all intents and purposes is a socialized health-care system,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told Wilkie. “Will you vigorously oppose any effort to privatize it?”

Wilkie assured him that much of VA’s care “can never be duplicated.”

“When our veterans walk into any VA facility, they converse with men and women who speak the unique language of military service.”

Wilkie said he would work to make the agency “agile and adaptive” to a computer-savvy generation of veterans demanding better customer service than they receive now.

“When an American veteran comes to VA it is not up to him to employ a team of lawyers to get VA to say YES,” Wilkie said. “It is up to VA to get the veteran to YES — that is customer service.”

He pledged to hire doctors and nurses to fill thousands of vacancies across the VA system, particularly in rural areas.

He cited a raft of “administrative and bureaucratic” issues he saw firsthand during the eight weeks he has served as acting secretary. He said he would fix them by modernizing VA’s cumbersome medical appointment system, shifting its paper-based disability claims to an electronic system and improving an antiquated human resources operation to serve a changing population of veterans, half of whom are younger than 65.

Previous VA leaders have had similar goals. Wilkie argued that the issue for VA is “not with the quality of medical care but with getting our veterans through the door to reach that care.”