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Top aide to VA chief Shulkin is said to have advocated his ouster

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin speaks during the National Governors Association meeting Sunday in Washington.
Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin speaks during the National Governors Association meeting Sunday in Washington. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

A senior aide to Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin lobbied an influential Capitol Hill staffer in mid-February in hopes that House Republicans would demand the VA chief’s resignation and that of his deputy, according to three people with knowledge of the matter.

The alleged effort by John Ullyot, VA’s assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs, was promptly rebuffed by Jonathan Towers, staff director for House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), these people say. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer candid insights about the power struggle that has roiled VA and embarrassed the Trump White House.

Towers, who declined to comment, told Ullyot that he had no intention of starting a campaign to oust Shulkin or Thomas Bowman, VA’s deputy secretary and a former senior staffer on Capitol Hill, people familiar with his reaction said. Additionally, “Chairman Roe has said both publicly and privately, on multiple occasions, that the secretary and deputy secretary have his full support,” committee spokeswoman Tiffany McGuffee Haverly said in a written statement issued Wednesday.

Towers is a longtime congressional staffer who has served on the House and Senate veterans affairs panels. Ullyot, a former Senate aide who held a prominent communications job in the Trump campaign, was joined on the phone call with Towers by VA’s press secretary, Curt Cashour, another Trump appointee. The conversation occurred days after the agency’s inspector general issued a report saying Shulkin misused taxpayer funds during a trip to Europe.

In a joint statement, Ullyot and Cashour denied the characterization of their call with Towers, saying, “That simply never happened, and the allegation is ridiculous.”

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The phone call was first reported by USA Today. Its disclosure coincides with the release of a related review by VA’s inspector general into Shulkin’s claim that his former chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, was the victim of an email breach.

In his report detailing Shulkin’s European travel, VA Inspector General Michael J. Missal accused Wright Simpson of doctoring an email during the trip’s preparations to ensure that the secretary’s wife would be approved to accompany him at taxpayer expense. Shulkin has insisted he did nothing improper, calling attention to efforts among other political appointees within the agency to undermine him.

Wright Simpson retired in the aftermath of Missal’s initial report on the Europe trip. Missal’s subsequent investigation concluded that her email was not hacked but rather targeted by an “unsophisticated ‘spoofing’ of her identity” that was unrelated to planning for the Europe trip. It’s unclear who may have sought to impersonate her.

The report said Wright Simpson showed Shulkin an email sent Feb. 14, the day the inspector general’s initial investigation was released, to an employee in VA’s finance department. It sought payment for a purchase. The email was marked “external” and was sent from a address.

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Missal wrote that Shulkin, in an interview with investigators, said he “did not mean to imply” that Wright Simpson’s email had been “hacked.” The secretary told reporters this week that he misunderstood the spoofing incident and had said incorrectly that Wright Simpson’s email was targeted by hackers.

Missal’s report says VA’s information technology staff has identified a type of phishing attack in which someone outside the agency impersonates an agency employee to persuade other employees to reveal private information and obtain fraudulent payments.

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In their statement, Ullyot and Cashour said their call to Towers was to convey that “we had no evidence of email hacking, contrary to media reports and claims from a member of the committee.”

“Our message was simple: be careful on advancing the hacking allegations publicly, as they were thus far baseless — a fact confirmed officially . . . by VA’s inspector general,” the statement said.

Ullyot and Shulkin have had a fraught relationship that has broken down in recent months, allies of both men say.

After The Washington Post made inquiries about the Europe trip last fall, VA issued a statement that said all of the secretary’s activities were reviewed by ethics officials, a claim that proved untrue.

Ullyot told investigators that Shulkin had dictated the language in the response to The Post, the inspector general report said. But Shulkin told them he had “no idea” where the statement originated.