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Trump’s VA pick, once a defender of Confederate symbols, built his career serving polarizing figures

Robert Wilkie, President Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, will face a Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday.
Robert Wilkie, President Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, will face a Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
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Robert Wilkie, President Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, is a conservative Washington insider who would bring three decades of military policymaking and a deep list of Capitol Hill connections to a Cabinet post responsible for serving one of the administration’s most crucial constituencies.

But when he appears Wednesday for his Senate confirmation hearing, Wilkie also will draw on a career spent working shoulder to shoulder with polarizing figures in U.S. politics and often defending their most divisive views. 

Wilkie, 55, has impeccable credentials: three decades at the center of the country’s most important military policies. The son of an Army artillery commander severely wounded in Vietnam — and a reserve officer in the Air Force himself. A trusted lieutenant of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis with contacts in Congress spanning at least five administrations.

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He started as a young aide to Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the five-term Senate firebrand who denounced Martin Luther King Jr. and once called gay people “weak, morally sick wretches.” He served as a top aide to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who lost his leadership post after defending a fellow senator’s segregationist campaign for president decades earlier. And he joined the inner circle of former defense secretary and Iraq War architect Donald H. Rumsfeld before returning to the Pentagon last year to run military personnel policy for the Trump administration. 

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)

Throughout, Wilkie showed a willingness to fight on the front lines of his bosses’ culture wars. This year, he led efforts to justify Trump’s near wholesale ban on transgender troops. In 1997, he rebutted a Democratic proposal to ensure equal pay for working women. And in 1993, he publicly defended a failed push by Helms to support an organization whose logo included the Confederate flag.

Wilkie grew up visiting U.S. battlefields with his father and developed a lifelong fascination with military history, including that of his ancestors, who fought for the Confederacy. He was, as recently as 2005, a fixture at the annual memorial ceremonies in Washington held by descendants of Confederate veterans around the birthday of Jefferson Davis. Wilkie also was a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group that defends public displays of the Confederate symbols. 

A Pentagon spokeswoman said Wilkie no longer attends the ceremonies or counts himself a member of the group. In a statement, Wilkie said the commemorations were once a means to memorialize soldiers but now have become “part of the politics that divide us.”

Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a leading advocacy group, said Wilkie must demonstrate that he doesn’t hold antiquated views and that he can serve all veterans. “He has to show he is loyal to veterans and not a partisan agenda,” Rieckhoff said.

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Helms acolyte

In many ways, Wilkie’s career has been defined by the years he worked for Helms, the famous bête noire of liberals from Wilkie’s home state of North Carolina. Friends say Wilkie admires the late senator as a political exemplar with a strong view of U.S. sovereignty and defense.

Wilkie declined to be interviewed for this story. Instead, the Pentagon provided a list of former colleagues and friends who could speak on his behalf. Those closest to Wilkie describe an intensely intellectual conservative policymaker who does not espouse Helms’s racial politics. They praise Wilkie’s commitment to public service and veterans, owing to a lifetime spent among the military.

Retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Arnold L. Punaro, a former Democratic staff director on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that in more than 30 years of knowing Wilkie, he never saw “any of the leanings of Jesse Helms when it comes to the issues people were concerned about.” 

“If the implication is that because he is interested in [events that commemorate the Confederacy] he somehow doesn’t treat everyone with dignity and respect — I would say that doesn’t logically follow,” Punaro said. “Because if you know the guy, that’s just not who he is.”

Wilkie was not the president’s first choice to lead VA after the dismissal this spring of his first veterans affairs secretary, David Shulkin. Rather, the president made him acting secretary as he considered other possible candidates following the failed nomination of Rear Adm. Ronny L. Jackson, Trump’s White House physician, who stepped aside amid allegations of improper conduct.

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Wilkie received strong recommendations from Mattis — whom Wilkie prepared for his confirmation hearing — and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly. He was seen as someone who could breeze through the confirmation process, having been approved by the Senate twice before for other posts.

Trump surprised Wilkie by announcing his nomination at a White House event in May. In conversations with friends, Wilkie has said he didn’t want to leave the Pentagon, where he felt comfortable as Mattis’s undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, but felt obliged to do so out of a sense of duty. 

Apart from navigating the transgender policy reversal for Mattis, Wilkie had introduced a new sexual harassment policy at the Pentagon and was crafting high-profile policies on suicide and sexual assault prevention. He also was partnering with retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, who served with Wilkie’s father, on an effort to improve training for troops who experience violent close-quarters combat.

People who have worked with Wilkie say that while he lacks the executive résumé of his two immediate predecessors at VA, he has deep ties in Congress and a background that will help him succeed at the agency. 

“It’s a place for soldiers to go,” Scales said. “Unless you have that close affinity with soldiers, that moral connection with soldiers, I just don’t think a VA administrator can give it his all.”

'I do not live in the past'

Wilkie was 7 years old when his father, while serving in Vietnam, was hit by rounds of enemy fire during the invasion of Cambodia. The wounds nearly killed him, and the experience was formative for his son.

“It certainly makes me empathetic to anyone who has been wounded and what their families go through — all of that motivates me,” Wilkie said in a statement. 

Wilkie came to call Fayetteville, N.C., his home while his father was stationed at Fort Bragg. He married his high school sweetheart and began a career in Washington politics after graduating from Wake Forest University and Loyola University School of Law. 

Working for Helms in the late 1980s, Wilkie handled military issues, a matter of critical importance to the senator’s base in North Carolina. He quickly earned a reputation as a brainy legislative expert whose talent for floor tactics and Senate procedure made him an unflappable presence in the cloakroom as he scribbled proposed amendments on his yellow legal pad. 

Helms returned Wilkie’s drafts with so few corrections that fellow staffers joked that if anyone wanted their work approved by the stickler senator, they should just put Wilkie’s name on it, recalled former staffer Jimmy Broughton. 

Wilkie periodically came out swinging for Helms at divisive moments. In 1993, for example, the only African American in the Senate, Democrat Carol Moseley Braun (Ill.), opposed Helms’s amendment to renew the patent on the insignia used by the United Daughters of the Confederacy because the logo featured the Confederate flag.

Moseley Braun rallied the Senate behind her in blocking the amendment. Wilkie attacked her efforts in statements made to The Washington Post. “What we are seeing is an attempt in the name of political correctness to erase entire blocks of our history,” the 30-year-old aide was quoted as saying at the time. “The question is whether we’re going to wipe out the history of millions of Americans who trace their heritage to the losing side.”

Around that time, Wilkie was attending ceremonies honoring fallen Confederate fighters at Arlington National Cemetery and the U.S. Capitol. The Pentagon declined to provide the speeches Wilkie delivered at those events. Maj. Carla Gleason, a spokeswoman, said Wilkie was participating in government-sanctioned events recognizing Civil War veterans more than a decade ago in his official capacity as a Senate staffer and executive branch official alongside Republicans and Democrats. He stopped attending, Gleason said, when the events became more politically divisive.

“Today, there would be much more consideration taken into attending this type of memorial event,” Wilkie said in a statement. “While I honor the soldiers in my family, and I am a student of history, the past is the past, and I do not live in the past.”

Wilkie left Capitol Hill in the mid-1990s to mount a failed bid for Congress. He later and served as executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party as Helms was engaged in a contentious reelection campaign against Democrat Harvey Gantt, the former mayor of Charlotte.

Wilkie publicly defended a campaign flier the party issued showing Gantt, who is black, alongside the state’s incumbent congressional Democrats. Two of the three also were black, including Eva Clayton, the first African American woman to represent North Carolina in Congress. “Eva’s bad enough. Do you want Harvey too?” the fliers asked. 

Democrats said the mailer was attempting to persuade white voters not to send another black representative to Congress. Wilkie told the New York Times the mailers also went to voters in a district represented by a white Democrat. “The racial charge has become so trite now that it’s lost its meaning,” he said at the time.

Gleason said that Wilkie maintains the flier was an attack against Gantt on the issues. 

Wilkie also attacked Gantt for having “openly courted money from the homosexual community,” according to a 1996 transcript from PBS’s “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.” The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment about the transcript. 

Culture warrior

In the late 1990s, Wilkie returned to Washington as a top aide to Lott, the Mississippi senator who would later become majority leader. He was involved in critical national security matters, leading negotiations after the 9/11 attacks on legislation that authorized the use of military force against the perpetrators and helping defeat U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive ­Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.

But he continued to do battle in the culture wars. When the office of then-Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) promoted a resolution calling for equal pay for women and sent it to Wilkie in hopes of securing bipartisan support, Wilkie marked up the draft with edits that called on Congress to require young women to finish high school as a condition of receiving welfare, a Daschle staffer recalled.

“I think he was trying to suggest that the whole endeavor was by itself ridiculous,” said Caroline Fredrickson, now president of the American Constitution Society. “I found it very insulting.”

Gleason, the Pentagon spokeswoman, said Wilkie’s “record on the way he treats his employees, on equal rights, equal opportunity and employment stands for itself on this matter.”

Wilkie defended Lott in 2003, shortly after the Senate majority leader lost his post for praising Strom Thurmond’s 1948 presidential campaign that opposed the intermingling of races. Speaking to the Associated Press, Wilkie said that Lott was simply trying to be “gracious to an American icon.” 

Today, liberals find cause for alarm in Wilkie’s record of defending his past bosses.

“This toxic history is profoundly beneath the office Robert Wilkie has been nominated for,” said Andrew Bates, a spokesman for the liberal opposition research group American Bridge. Bates said Wilkie “championed the disgraceful, painful legacy of Jesse Helms.”

Conservative former colleagues of Wilkie see it otherwise, viewing Wilkie as one of Helms’s smartest acolytes. “He’s probably the most brilliant person I worked with,” said Broughton, the former staffer. “Probably as high a level of integrity as anybody.”  

Wilkie joined the George W. Bush administration after his many years on Capitol Hill, first working for Condoleezza Rice at the White House National Security Council and later at the Pentagon, where he rose to become Rumsfeld’s point person with Congress. Later, while working for former defense secretary Robert M. Gates, Wilkie helped the Pentagon usher in an armored vehicle that saved American soldiers from being maimed by explosive devices in Iraq. 

As he testifies before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee this week, Wilkie is likely to emphasize his record of policy achievements, such as bipartisan legislation on sexual assault prevention. Bob Carey, who was a Senate staffer with Wilkie and now works at a conservative veterans group, said what veterans care about is whether VA can properly deliver health care and benefits.

“You look at this guy’s career, and I don’t think you’ll find a person more prepared to do that than Robert Wilkie,” Carey said.

Julie Tate contributed to this report.