Wilkie’s firing of James Byrne on Monday has unsettled the veterans community inside and outside VA, and Wilkie provided few answers to why he dismissed a popular leader.
“There’s nothing personal” about Byrne’s firing, Wilkie said at a previously scheduled appearance at the National Press Club, “but we have so many things going on. . . . It’s been my goal to ensure that everyone who works for us performs to the utmost.”
He tied Byrne’s firing to an effort across the Department of Veterans Affairs to hold poor performers accountable.
Wilkie praised Byrne, a former Marine infantry officer who was VA’s general counsel before Wilkie recruited him as his second-in-command, as “a man of great distinction in terms of service to the country.”
He said he is presenting names of potential successors to the White House for consideration. Byrne, whose elevation to deputy was advocated by Wilkie, declined to comment.
His dismissal has flummoxed senior leaders at VA and veterans groups, who describe a leader well liked by the staff and loyal to Wilkie. The loss of a senior leader who was confirmed by the Senate just five months ago continues years of turmoil at the government’s second-largest agency, which has had four secretaries in five years.
Veterans are a key constituency for President Trump, whose reelection campaign is likely to focus in part on what he has done for former service members.
Byrne’s firing comes as Wilkie has openly expressed frustration with his own job and sought other high-profile positions in the Trump administration, rankling some White House officials, according to multiple people close to VA and the White House.
Wilkie last year sought the job of defense secretary after Jim Mattis’s firing by the president. Then in recent months Wilkie put his name in for consideration as homeland security chief after Kevin McAleenan’s resignation as acting secretary last fall, these people said.
Wilkie is from North Carolina and was an aide to Jesse Helms, the late Republican senator. He is widely considered to be interested in a career in North Carolina politics, possibly as a candidate for the Senate seat that will open with the retirement of incumbent Richard Burr (R) in 2022, people familiar with his thinking said.
Wilkie spokesman James Hutton denied that Wilkie sought the homeland-security job and said he is “categorically not interested in entering North Carolina politics.” Hutton also said Wilkie is “not at all frustrated with his job and believes this is the best professional experience he has had.”
Wilkie said Wednesday that Byrne’s dismissal was not connected to the investigation of the sexual assault allegations by Navy veteran Andrea Goldstein, a senior member on the staff of House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.).
Goldstein said she was sexually assaulted and harassed by a patient at the D.C. VA Medical Center in September.
Wilkie issued a public letter to Takano calling Goldstein’s claims “unsubstantiated” after authorities closed their investigation without bringing charges. The wording of the letter seemed to disparage Goldstein and appeared to some as tone-deaf in the #MeToo era.
Wilkie’s letter prompted an angry rebuttal from Takano, and from VA Inspector General Michael Missal, who rebutted Wilkie’s characterization of Goldstein’s allegations. Missal said that just because no charges were filed did not mean her claims were unsubstantiated.
On Wednesday, Wilkie cited what he called a record number of female veterans seeking health care in the VA system — about 780,000, or 41 percent of the population of women who served.
Wilkie said he wants assurances that “everyone who walks in a VA hospital is safe and taken care of.” Asked whether he was satisfied with the resolution in the Goldstein case, he said that he was not and that he was making a “renewed push to get answers . . . to make sure those involved get satisfaction.”
“We are working to make sure the [House] committee and Ms. Goldstein receive all the information available to make sure their needs are taken care of,” Wilkie said.
Missal said in a statement after Wilkie’s remarks that the investigation is closed. “We are not working with anyone to seek additional information at this time,” his office said in an email.
Goldstein criticized Wilkie’s response to her allegations in an article published Monday by the website Jezebel. A spokesman for Takano did not respond to a request for comment.
Takano said in a statement Monday that “the American people deserve to know” why Byrne was dismissed. “As chairman of this committee, it is my duty to ensure veterans receive timely access to care and benefits without delay, and I want to make sure this personnel decision will not impact that commitment,” he said.
Byrne, 55, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and former international narcotics prosecutor at the Justice Department, worked for defense giant Lockheed Martin before joining the Trump administration. He took the deputy position in an acting capacity starting in August 2018.
Byrne oversaw some of VA’s biggest initiatives, including a plan to address the persistent problem of veteran suicide and an ambitious project that will eventually merge veterans’ military health records with their records at VA.
Wilkie has told colleagues that he and Byrne clashed in recent months, primarily over the authority the secretary has given his chief of staff, Pamela Powers, whom he brought to VA from the Pentagon. Powers served as a key aide to Wilkie when he was the senior official in charge of personnel and readiness.
Byrne had told Wilkie he was frustrated that Powers, who is not in a role requiring Senate confirmation, was assuming more and more responsibility, essentially usurping his authority, people close to Byrne said. Byrne discussed his concerns with other senior leaders, who agreed with his assessment but were wary of alienating Wilkie and Powers, the people said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.