The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump loyalists at VA shuffling, purging employees before new secretary takes over

Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Peter O’Rourke attends a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee hearing about the Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Peter O’Rourke attends a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee hearing about the Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Ahead of Robert Wilkie’s likely confirmation to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, Trump loyalists at the agency are taking aggressive steps to purge or reassign staff members perceived to be disloyal to President Trump and his agenda for veterans, according to multiple people familiar with the moves.

The transfers include more than a dozen career civil servants who have been moved from the leadership suite at VA headquarters and reassigned to lower-visibility roles. The employees served agency leaders, some dating back more than two decades, in crucial support roles that help a new secretary.

None said they were given reasons for their reassignments.

The moves are being carried out by a small cadre of political appointees led by Acting Secretary Peter O’Rourke who have consolidated power in the four months since they helped oust Secretary David Shulkin.

The reshuffling marks a new stage in a long estrangement between civil servants and Trump loyalists at VA, where staff upheaval and sinking morale threaten to derail service to one of the president’s key constituencies, according to current and former employees.

Among those reassigned is an experienced scheduler whom Wilkie told colleagues he wanted to work for him once he is confirmed by the Senate, according to former and current employees.

Exodus from Trump’s VA; ‘When the mission is no longer a reason to stay’

Other career senior executives with institutional knowledge of VA’s troubled benefits operation also have been sidelined, some to other cities, according to multiple people who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity. A high-ranking executive appointed during the Obama administration to a six-year term quit last week after clashing with Trump aides. Even some Trump appointees have been pushed out for challenging the leadership group.

Veterans Affairs acting secretary Robert Wilkie addressed his department in a video message on April 4, saying "This is a noble calling." (Video: U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs)

VA officials say the reassignments will help their efforts to improve the agency’s overall culture and performance. Still, it is highly unusual for a leader in an acting, caretaker role — which began for O’Rourke on May 30 — to make such significant changes before a permanent leader arrives.

“Under President Trump, VA won’t wait to take necessary action when it comes to improving the department and its service to Veterans,” spokesman Curt Cashour said in an email. Wilkie, according to Cashour and a spokeswoman for the nominee, has had no hand in the changes as he awaits Senate confirmation.

Current and former employees — and now alarmed members of Congress — call the reshuffling a loyalty purge that is targeting the alleged political sympathies of civil servants whose jobs are, by definition, nonpartisan.

“These are people who served multiple administrations,” said one employee who was moved, “but they only want them to serve the Trump administration. You can’t run a department like that.”

Twelve Senate Democrats wrote O’Rourke a scathing three-page letter late Wednesday after this article was published online that said he was “putting politics above veterans’ needs and that is shameful.” The lawmakers called his actions “reckless” and an “apparent attempt to preempt the arrival of a new VA secretary.”

“Using this short-term appointment to install more political loyalists within the Department while wantonly reassigning, demoting and removing countless nonpartisan career employees who have served multiple prior administrations is reckless,” they wrote. The letter was signed by Sens. Jon Tester (Mont.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), Chris Van Hollen (Md.), Brian Schatz (Hawaii), Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Ron Wyden (Ore.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Mazie Hirono (Hawaii) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.). They demanded that O’Rourke discontinue the reassignments.

At a House hearing on Tuesday, a visibly irritated Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) pressed O’Rourke to explain why he has “removed, demoted or reassigned” a “significant number of career employees.”

O’Rourke called his actions “well-planned and designed moves” to improve “efficiency and effectiveness.” He acknowledged that the changes were not the result of poor performance.

He said he is encouraging other VA leaders to follow suit.

Esty countered that she suspects “loyalty concerns” are behind the transfers.

“To be clearing out that many people during the time of an acting secretary is disturbing,” she said. “You’re going to lose institutional knowledge.”

‘It’s killing the agency: Ugly power struggle hurt’s Trump plan for VA

Presidential loyalty also has been a factor in staff changes at other agencies. The State Department sidelined or pushed out dozens of career diplomats who questioned the agency’s diminished role in the Trump administration.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reassigned dozens of senior executives in two shuffles. Critics said the mass transfers amounted to retaliation against career staff members who spoke out against his policies, and Zinke said publicly that he has “30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag.”

The VA moves come at an agency Trump has called a top priority. A bright spot early in the administration, VA in recent months has lost dozens of senior leaders who were pushed out or quit in alarm at the chaos in what has long been a bipartisan corner of the government.

O’Rourke, a Trump campaign staff member who served as VA’s chief of staff and led a new office designed to protect whistleblowers, was appointed acting secretary after Wilkie, who had served in the role after Shulkin’s firing and the failed nomination of White House physician Ronny L. Jackson, won the nod for permanent secretary. Wilkie returned to his job as head of military personnel at the Defense Department to await confirmation.

“Any decisions made following Mr. Wilkie’s departure as acting [secretary] were made by the current VA leadership and Mr. Wilkie was not aware, nor a part of those decisions,” Wilkie spokeswoman Carla Gleason said in an email.

A Navy and Air Force veteran, O’Rourke has shown a willingness to exert power in his caretaker role. With his framed photograph now hanging in VA headquarters, he consults regularly with Trump political appointees, excluding career senior leaders from some meetings.

He quickly drew criticism from both parties on Capitol Hill for an ongoing dispute with VA’s inspector general, who is seeking records for an investigation of the whistleblower office. The Senate intervened, voting unanimously in June to tell O’Rourke that he does not have the right to block the watchdog’s efforts.

Mid-level employees who worked for years in VA’s seat of power supporting secretaries and their deputies were called in by O’Rourke’s staff, where they were informed of their departures, according to multiple employees.

One was told she needed to find another job in the agency but was not offered one.

Another, Debi Bevins, whose role as director of client relations ensures that emails and phone calls to the secretary’s office receive responses, was moved to another department doing the same job — but she no longer has direct access to the secretary.

Tonia Bock, executive secretary to the agency, and her deputy, Jennifer Jessup, who had access to sensitive correspondence with Congress, also were moved.

A VA official said Bock’s office “had struggled with tracking and responding to congressional inquiries accurately and in a timely fashion.”

A well-regarded staff assistant hired during the Obama administration as a political appointee was fired. Some aides were reassigned from the office of Thomas Bowman, the agency’s second-in-command, who was pushed to retire in June after falling from favor at the end of Shulkin’s tenure.

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

The shake-up is now reaching another top Trump appointee, the assistant secretary for operations, security and preparedness, who refused to sign a resignation letter that O’Rourke’s team gave him after he clashed with them and is now negotiating his departure.

Don Loren, a retired Navy rear admiral, had questioned the group’s management style. He also refused to suspend normal security protocol to allow O’Rourke’s wife to bypass building security at VA headquarters, according to someone with knowledge of the matter. He denied a request to move up O’Rourke in the line of succession behind the deputy secretary, this person said. Cashour denied that these events took place.

He called Loren a “valuable member of our team” with “exemplary” job performance who is leaving because of changes to his current position, which is being downgraded to a director.

A senior VA official called Katherine Pham, the scheduler whom Wilkie liked, “a valued member of the VA team” who had sought a new position.

At the Veterans Benefits Administration, which has struggled for years to speed up its processing of disability claims, a new team of appointees in charge has transferred at least half a dozen senior career staff members to less prominent roles, some in other cities.

The culled leadership positions appear to be part of a restructuring designed to streamline the department, according to an internal memo obtained by

The small Center for Women Veterans has been a flash point for loyalty questions. Director Kayla Williams quit last week to take another job after clashes with the Trump administration about making the agency’s mission statement more gender-neutral.

VA employees wanted a gender-neutral mission. The agency refused.

“As both a veteran and the spouse of a 100 percent disabled combat-wounded veteran, I was deeply committed to the VA mission of serving all veterans,” Williams said.

However, a civil servant on her staff, Danielle Corazza, was fired after sending a tweet from the center’s account that praised the large number of female veterans running for office this year. The tweet linked to an article showing that most are Democrats.

VA officials said Corazza sent multiple tweets from the account that tracked other campaign successes of female veterans who are Democrats.

The senior VA official said the Center for Women Veterans “was recently involved in repeated, clear and unequivocal violations of the Hatch Act” and as a result the agency “is implementing staffing changes” there.

Corazza said she never received training in the law, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity while on duty. “My training was to post about female veterans, which I did,” she said.

Several high-level White House staff members also have been found in violation of the Hatch Act, although none appear to have been punished.

Correction: A previous version of this report incorrectly said some aides were fired from the office of Thomas Bowman; they were reassigned. This article has been updated.