The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

VA chief fights for his political future amid internal strife and allegations of subterfuge

Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin arrives to testify before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee on Thursday. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin battled for his political survival Thursday as he faced ethics questions about a trip to Europe, acknowledging to lawmakers that “the optics of this are not good” and lobbying the White House to defend him.

White House officials refused to do so, however, saying they felt misled by Shulkin over the significance of an inspector general’s report alleging “serious derelictions” by the secretary and his senior staff.

Against that backdrop, and amid accounts of a festering power struggle among Shulkin and President Trump’s other political appointees within the agency, he went to Capitol Hill for a hearing before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, telling lawmakers that he accepted responsibility for the lapses cited by VA Inspector General Michael J. Missal. The 10-day business trip to Copenhagen and London — including Shulkin’s improper acceptance of tickets to a Wimbledon tennis match and his heavy emphasis on sightseeing — became the focus of an investigation last year after The Washington Post revealed the government paid for Shulkin’s wife to join him.

Veterans Affairs chief Shulkin, staff misled ethics officials about European trip, report finds

But speaking with reporters after the hearing, Shulkin accused other senior political appointees within the agency of working to undermine him and claimed they might have hacked the email account of his chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, whom the inspector general accused of doctoring a message to justify covering travel expenses for Shulkin’s wife.

“We need this department to be functioning well,” the secretary said, according to a report by Military Times. “Everybody needs to know their job is taking care of veterans. . . . If that’s not the case, we’re going to root that out and we’re going to make sure this is a department we’re all proud of.”

Shulkin vowed to investigate whether his chief of staff’s email had been compromised. Separately, Rep. Tim Walz (Minn.), the House committee’s ranking Democrat, asked the Justice Department to review Shulkin’s allegations. Wright Simpson remains on the job, even though the inspector general suggested that altering an official email may constitute a crime.

Shulkin’s standing with Trump appears tenuous, a White House official said. Trump, who has held Shulkin in high regard and publicly praised his efforts to turn around the troubled agency, is said to be upset, though there are no immediate plans to fire him, the official said.

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly summoned Shulkin on Thursday afternoon, but details of their conversation were tightly held. Shulkin defended himself, the official said, and sought to blame others within VA for not properly handling the trip’s preparations and its aftermath.

White House officials have been told not to defend or attack Shulkin, the officials said.

VA spokesman Curt Cashour referred questions to the White House. A White House spokesman declined to comment.

One House member, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), has called on Shulkin to resign, saying in an interview that the lapses described by the inspector general reflect a culture of corruption at VA. Shulkin has said he does not intend to step down.

Shulkin has been among the most visible and least controversial members of the Cabinet, and the only Obama-era holdover. A physician and former hospital administrator, he has worked to improve access to health care and benefits for one of the president’s key constituencies. He won unanimous confirmation by the Senate.

But the agency’s leadership has become consumed by power struggles, with Trump’s political appointees both inside VA and at the White House challenging the secretary’s authority.

Some of Shulkin’s detractors have bristled at his sometimes brusque demeanor and affiliation with the Obama administration, according to current and former agency officials and veterans groups. Shulkin, in turn, has a deep mistrust of senior leaders he works with every day but did not appoint, these people say.

Animosity between the factions has grown, most recently over how far VA should go in offering veterans health care from private doctors, with the administration favoring legislation that would most aggressively expand such options. Shulkin has warned against “privatizing” VA.

Even as the Europe trip was under investigation, officials opposing Shulkin were developing a plan to oust him along with his deputy Thomas Bowman and Wright Simpson, a longtime civil servant who is the only chief of staff for a Cabinet secretary elevated to the role from within the agency.

White House targets VA’s deputy secretary as ‘a warning shot’ to agency’s leader

In a December email exchange between two senior VA officials, Jake Leinenkugel and Camilo J. Sandoval, Shulkin was initially considered a “game changer” who would “provide an aligned approach to POTUS Veteran agenda.” But the relationship soon soured as the men battled over who was in control of policy and personnel decisions, according to the message written by Leinenkugel, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post.

Leinenkugel suggested that Wright Simpson and Bowman were obstructionists, writing in the memo that the chief of staff told him that “she is a Democrat who completely trusts the Secretary and it’s her job to protect him and his agenda.”

Leinenkugel proposed that the White House remove Wright Simpson and Bowman, who came close to being ousted last week. His final recommendation was to put Shulkin “on notice to exit after major legislation and key POTUS VA initiatives in place.”

In a statement emailed Thursday night, Leinenkugel said that as a proud Marine he would “never lie, cheat, steal nor contemplate criminal behavior.”

“I express my concerns and suggestions for improvements freely and on a weekly, if not daily basis. To be questioned about my involvement in hacking VA emails is an affront and absurd,” he added.

Sandoval did not return emails seeking comment.

Shulkin, meanwhile, may have undermined himself with senior White House aides as they anticipated the release of the inspector general’s report.

He made the rounds of the West Wing earlier this week to urge them to offer supportive statements about him, and sought the firm backing of both Kelly and Trump, according to a senior administration official. But the secretary had presented the findings of the forthcoming investigation in a more flattering light and left out some of its most damning findings, the official said.

“People were like, ‘Sure, okay, that doesn’t sound so bad,’ ” this person said. Press office staffers began brainstorming on how to help Shulkin.

When the report was made public Wednesday, White House officials read it and felt misled, the official said.

“He can defend himself on this one,” a senior administration official said, referring to the inspector general’s report. “He was totally dishonest about it.”

Veterans groups worry that the tensions are shortchanging veterans’ care.

“All the tribes are fighting, and average veterans are stuck in the middle,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive officer of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “Most of them are not political extremists or trying to push any agenda. They just want a system that works. They are like, ‘Hey man, help me fix my amputation.’ ”

In his first year, Congress approved changes designed to shrink a backlog of appeals of benefits claims and clear a faster path to firing poor performers and employees involved in misconduct.

Shulkin has alternated between defiance and remorse since the investigation’s release, hiring a team of lawyers to discredit the findings and a separate public relations firm to help manage the crisis.

“The optics of this are not good. I accept responsibility for that,” he told lawmakers on Thursday as some grilled him on the inspector general’s report.

After the report’s release, a lengthy statement from the secretary appeared on VA’s website, with him asserting, “I have done nothing wrong.”

Within hours, the White House instructed him to have the statement taken down, according to multiple officials with knowledge of what happened. It was replaced with a statement from Cashour indicating that the inspector general’s report was “under review.”