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Senate moves to install VA nominee following reports of staff targeting by acting secretary

Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Peter O’Rourke attends a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee hearing on July 17.
Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Peter O’Rourke attends a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee hearing on July 17. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced Thursday that the Senate will vote Monday on the confirmation of top Pentagon official Robert Wilkie as veterans affairs secretary after revelations of a politically motivated purge of employees by the interim leadership.

The rapidly scheduled vote was announced after Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, called Thursday for action on the confirmation “without delay.”

The move follows a report in The Washington Post on Wednesday that VA officials who are supportive of President Trump have been taking aggressive steps to sideline or reassign employees who are perceived to be disloyal.

“It is of utmost importance that any policy changes that impact the future of the department be made by a confirmed VA secretary who can be held accountable by Congress and the American people,” Isakson said in a statement.

Trump loyalists at VA shuffling, purging employees before new secretary is in place

Isakson said he would work with Wilkie to implement “any policy and personnel changes that he deems necessary to best serve the veterans of the United States” — a reference that underscored the alarm in both parties about the targeting of staff members.

Hours later, McConnell announced that the vote would be the first order of business when the Senate convenes Monday.

The personnel changes have been carried out by Peter O’Rourke, a former Trump campaign staff member who has been serving as VA’s acting secretary since May 30. Multiple civil servants in several offices have been reassigned to lower-visibility roles, and some high-ranking Trump political appointees have been forced out after disagreeing with the management style of O’Rourke and his team, The Post reported.

Wilkie was not aware of the personnel moves, according to his spokesman and VA officials.

The officials behind the reassignments were also the driving force behind the ouster of Secretary David Shulkin, whom Trump fired in March. Wilkie served briefly as acting secretary after Shulkin left.

Among those reassigned in recent weeks were more than a dozen civil servants who served for years in support roles in the secretary suite’s on the 10th floor of VA headquarters. The employees were not told why they were being moved, according to current and former VA staff members.

O’Rourke told House lawmakers Tuesday that the reassignments, which have extended to career executives at VA’s massive benefits department, were “well-planned and designed moves” to improve “efficiency and effectiveness.” He acknowledged that the changes were not the result of poor performance.

But Democratic lawmakers and the reassigned employees have accused O’Rourke of carrying out a loyalty purge based on the perceived political leanings of civil servants, whose jobs are supposed to be nonpartisan. Many of the staff members in the executive suite served multiple VA secretaries.

Also Thursday, nine Democrats led by Rep. Tim Walz (Minn.), the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, called for an investigation of whether O’Rourke violated a federal law that prohibits on-duty political activity during his tenure as acting secretary.

“It is troubling that Mr. Rourke confirmed that the personnel changes were not for cause,” the lawmakers wrote to special counsel Henry Kerner, a Trump appointee who leads the office that investigates violations of the Hatch Act.

The lawmakers said they have received information that career employees “have been removed, demoted or reassigned for political reasons,” or resigned when they realized they were about to be fired.

The request from House Democrats follows a three-page letter that 12 Senate Democrats, led by Jon Tester (Mont.), the ranking Democrat on Veterans’ Affairs Committee, sent to O’Rourke on Wednesday. The letter accused O’Rourke of “putting politics above veterans’ needs.”

VA spokesman Curt Cashour did not respond to a request for comment on the letter.

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