The Senate easily confirmed Robert Wilkie on Monday as the 10th secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, elevating the top Pentagon official and Washington insider to lead an agency that serves a key constituency for President Trump but has floundered amid political infighting.
The 86-to-9 bipartisan vote, with Democrats casting nearly all of the no votes, was without the drama of other Cabinet confirmations during the Trump administration. Wilkie convinced many Democrats that he would not privatize the agency, but he is the first VA secretary to fail to receive unanimous Senate confirmation, a reflection of the political tensions in what has long been a bipartisan corner of the federal government.
Several of the no votes, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), are potential candidates for president in 2020 who have opposed other Trump Cabinet nominees.
The president, in a statement issued by the White House, said Wilkie has “dedicated his life to serving his country with honor and pride. He has displayed great patriotism and a commitment to supporting and empowering America’s armed forces and veterans. Under his leadership, I have no doubt that the Department of Veterans Affairs will continue to make strides in honoring and protecting the heroic men and women who have served our Nation with distinction.”
Wilkie’s confirmation had been all but assured since his May nomination to succeed David Shulkin, a hospital executive and holdover from the Obama administration who clashed with the White House and the team of political appointees at VA. Trump had initially chosen White House physician Ronny L. Jackson for the job, but that candidacy imploded in a torrent of misconduct allegations.
Wilkie, 55, now head of military personnel at the Defense Department, was welcomed on Capitol Hill as an experienced official who could address the agency’s many challenges.
“Robert Wilkie is the real deal,” Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said on the Senate floor before the vote. “I told him, ‘You have no excuses.’ We’re here to make sure VA has no excuses, only results.”
Isakson had told Wilkie at his confirmation hearing this month that poor morale was the biggest challenge he would face leading the government’s second-largest agency, with 360,000 employees.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) moved quickly to get Wilkie in place after a report in The Washington Post last week on a politically motivated purge of employees by VA’s interim leadership. After revelations that acting secretary Peter O’Rourke has taken aggressive steps to sideline or reassign employees who are perceived to be disloyal, Isakson called for a confirmation vote “without delay.”
“Today, like never before, we’ve got political forces at work inside VA,” Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.), the committee’s top Democrat, said before the vote, describing an agency he said has lost sight of its mission to serve veterans.
“Good employees are being forced out not because of the job they’re doing but because of their views,” Tester said. “Veterans need a leader who will build bridges, not tear down the department to meet a political agenda.”
Wilkie, an Air Force reservist 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. He has worked for some of the most polarizing political figures in Washington, including the late senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), but his past embrace of some divisive cultural views did not deter his path to confirmation.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is in a tough reelection fight, said in a statement that she could not support Wilkie’s nomination because his long career defending “many controversial policies and elected officials” – including his defense of the Confederate flag — precluded him from serving all veterans.
Wilkie spent eight weeks as acting VA secretary, then returned to the Pentagon to await confirmation.
The White House has advocated for an expansion of private-sector options for veterans, a policy the administration came to think Shulkin was not pushing hard enough. Wilkie has said he would carry out a similar mandate of newly passed legislation — but said private care would not replace VA, a long-standing fear among Democrats and some veterans’ service organizations.
VA has been without a permanent leader for four months just as it began implementing multiple new laws and projects. A contract for a multibillion-dollar electronic health records system to replace one built in-house decades ago was just signed. So was the massive “Mission Act,” which expands veteran access to private doctors at taxpayer expense, a victory for the president that helps cement one of his biggest campaign promises.
Other challenges include suicide prevention, cutting the backlog of benefits claims, changing the post-9/11 GI Bill and filling thousands of vacancies for medical professionals.
The agenda comes amid a string of departures of senior leaders over the past six months as an interim leadership team of political appointees consolidated power and helped oust Shulkin.
Wilkie will face heightened tensions between these appointees and civil servants throughout the agency’s Washington headquarters..
A law Congress passed a year ago to make it easier for the agency to fire employees for poor performance has unleashed widespread concern that whistleblowers are being targeted.
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 and retiring.
“The first thing VA needs right now is employee confidence in their senior leadership,” said Joe Davis, communications director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, whose annual convention in Kansas City, Mo., Trump is scheduled to address Tuesday.
“There’s a morale problem,” Davis said. “There’s nobody captaining the ship. VA is often a headline away from a nationwide crisis.”
Supporters of the team in place, however, argue that the high staff turnover is benefiting the agency because employees who did not support Trump’s policies for veterans are gone.
“I don’t think many of [those who’ve left] were aligned with the president’s vision for VA,” said Dan Caldwell, executive director of Concerned Veterans for America, a group backed by conservative billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch that is allied with the Trump administration.
“The administration has approached fixing the VA much differently than the Obama administration,” Caldwell said. “Robert Wilkie is going to have to focus a lot on change management.”