Hegseth is an Iraq War veteran who was previously executive director of the conservative advocacy groups Vets for Freedom and Concerned Veterans for America, which is backed by the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch.
Concerned Veterans has proved to be an influential force in the administration. But Hegseth’s views on reforming the troubled agency are considered extreme even by some Republicans in Congress, and it is unclear if he could win Senate confirmation if President Trump decides to fire Shulkin.
Hegseth has been a confidant of Trump’s, who watches his Fox News show and frequently calls him to discuss veterans’ policy. Hegseth has dined at the White House and, during an Oval Office meeting between Trump and Shulkin last week, the president called Hegseth to seek his counsel on pending legislation that would expand private care.
Trump has not met with Hegseth about the job. But the president has soured on Shulkin, the only Obama-era holdover in his Cabinet, amid widely reported turmoil within VA’s senior ranks. The president has told aides he may replace Shulkin as part of a broader shake-up that began Tuesday with his firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Other possible candidates to run VA include Jeff Miller, a retired Republican congressman from Florida who was chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee and now works as a lobbyist, according to sources close to the administration. While the president discussed the turmoil at VA in a meeting Monday with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Perry told reporters Wednesday that he is not interested in the job and that he is not considered a candidate.
Hegseth, reached late Wednesday, declined to comment. A former infantry soldier, he told The Washington Post last week that Shulkin “has talked a good game on Choice,” referring to an existing program that allows veterans to see private doctors, but with restrictions. “But he’s sided with the permanent bureaucracy, the traditional veterans’ groups and the unions.”
A Minnesota native, Hegseth was vetted to run the sprawling veterans’ agency after Trump was elected in 2016. But he was considered too inexperienced to run the government’s second-largest bureaucracy, which employs 360,000. He also is disliked by traditional veterans’ advocacy groups, which fear a downsized VA and a privatized system, and which would probably mount a strong campaign against his nomination.
Shulkin, 58, a physician and former hospital executive who ran the Veterans Health Administration under President Barack Obama, won unanimous Senate confirmation last year. He has racked up a number of bipartisan wins for the administration in Congress, but has clashed with VA’s senior political appointees installed by the White House. The core issue on which they disagree is the degree to which veterans should be able to seek private care at government expense. About 30 percent of VA’s medical appointments are now handled by private doctors.
The tensions spilled into public view in February following an investigation by the agency’s inspector general, who admonished the secretary for a business trip he took to Europe with his wife and top staff.
Shulkin could not be reached for comment. During testimony Thursday on Capitol Hill, he was asked by lawmakers whether he’s become distracted by the feud or faced pressure from the administration to privatize veterans’ care. The secretary said that he remains focused and that the only pressure he faces is “to fix this system.”
It’s unclear how long Shulkin plans to stay in the job, though. His allies say he is focused on moving the Choice legislation through Congress and on signing the first phase of a massive contract to overhaul VA’s outdated electronic health records system. A sticking point has been how a new system would connect veterans’ medical records with those of private doctors.
Hegseth has been critical of some senators whose votes he would need for confirmation. As the Senate debated legislation to expand the Choice program in November, he tweeted about Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.): “Worst part about this is that so-called Republican @SenatorIsakson voted WITH socialist @SenSanders to block MORE health care choice for veterans. Sanders wants to trap vets in @DeptVetAffairs and so do Swamp creature ‘Republicans’ like Isakson.”
Asked to comment on a possible Hegseth nomination, Isakson spokeswoman Amanda Maddox said, “We don’t comment on hypotheticals.”
The Koch political network has announced plans to spend substantial money to target incumbent Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections, among them Sen. Jon Tester, (D-Mont.), the committee’s ranking Democrat.
Tester, a Shulkin supporter, said in a recent statement, “Right now, what the veterans of this country need is a leadership team at VA and in the White House who will help us . . . improve access to quality VA health care. That means we need a Secretary who works for our veterans, not for the Koch brothers.”
Josh Dawsey, Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker contributed to this report.