Senior White House officials were in serious discussions with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) this spring to gauge his interest in joining President Trump’s Cabinet as Veterans Affairs secretary after presidential physician Ronny L. Jackson’s nomination imploded, according to several people with knowledge of the discussions.
The White House wooed Manchin, 70, in hopes of clearing the way for Republicans to win his seat in the heavily pro-Trump state, concerned the conservative Democrat was popular enough back home to retain his seat despite the president’s high poll numbers in West Virginia.
No formal offer was made for the VA post, White House and congressional officials with knowledge of the deliberations said. In an interview, Manchin said he viewed the discussions as being about how to find the best person for the Veterans post — not filling the position himself.
He acknowledged speaking with the White House, as well as with Bob McDonald, President Barack Obama’s second-term VA secretary, about the vacancy generally.
The conversations with the White House, he said, were about “basically finding the right person who could fill [the position] with the right qualifications.”
But White House officials said they specifically asked Manchin about leading VA himself and believed he was interested. The discussions with him went on for several days and began after Jackson withdrew his nomination in late April, but Manchin backed out once he saw a poll suggesting he could win his race and heard from others the job was too difficult, White House officials said.
Trump gave two top White House officials a green light to reach out to the senator and seriously considered nominating him, White House officials said.
But the White House did not extend a formal offer because there was worry that if it happened, and Manchin turned it down, it could make it difficult for the president to campaign against the senator, one White House official said.
The White House press office declined to comment.
Had there been an offer and had Manchin accepted, the move would have scrambled the political calculus for one of the most closely watched Senate battlegrounds this year as Republicans fight to keep or expand their 51-to-49 majority. Manchin is facing Patrick Morrisey, the state’s Republican attorney general, in a state that went for Trump by 42 points in 2016. Republicans are bullish on their prospects in West Virginia, although Democrats believe other states they hold — such as North Dakota, Missouri, Florida and Indiana — are much more competitive.
Instead, Trump announced on May 18 that he would nominate Robert Wilkie, the current acting VA secretary and a longtime former congressional and Pentagon staffer who is now undersecretary of defense in charge of personnel and readiness, to run the sprawling veterans department.
Trump and Manchin have a complicated relationship. Manchin has been one of the most sympathetic Democratic senators toward Trump, siding with him on some of his more controversial nominees. But Trump has publicly mocked him, and Republicans say Manchin’s overtures are misleading because he has opposed many White House priorities, such as the sweeping tax law.
“Joe, he voted against. No, it was bad,” Trump said at an April tax roundtable in West Virginia. “And he does other things that I don’t like, to be honest with you. We’re going to get a chance to have a senator that’s going to help our program.”
At a Senate Republican lunch in May, Trump told the senators how much Manchin loves him and hugs him when he sees the president, according to a person briefed on the gathering.
Yet the VA flirtation between the president and the senator — who has flaunted his closeness to Trump as he campaigns for reelection — marked the third time the White House has tried to coax Manchin into the administration to clear a path for a potential GOP pickup in the Senate in November.
Manchin, a former governor who won a special election in 2010 to succeed the late Robert C. Byrd, has remained popular in West Virginia even as his state — where Trump has promised to revive a rich but dying coal industry — began shifting Republican in the George W. Bush era.
Manchin considered retiring early this year after repeatedly disparaging life in the Senate, raising Democratic anxiety that the party would lose his seat.
Administration officials approached Manchin after Trump’s 2016 election about serving as energy secretary, but he said no. The post went to former Texas governor Rick Perry.
The White House made another overture for Energy last summer after John F. Kelly was named White House chief of staff, leaving an opening at the Department of Homeland Security that Perry was considered for. Manchin again said he would stay in the Senate.
The talks about VA this spring were more serious, White House and congressional officials said. The West Virginia primary was approaching just as Jackson — who had been a surprise pick to succeed David Shulkin as secretary — was forced to withdraw his nomination when disparaging reports surfaced about his conduct as head of the White House medical office. Republicans were concerned at the time that Don Blankenship, a former coal executive who has served a year in prison and has used racial epithets to describe black people and those of Chinese descent, could win the GOP primary.
After Jackson withdrew, Manchin called McDonald, with whom he developed a close relationship, to seek his advice on whether to take the job, according to a person with knowledge of the conversation.
McDonald waved him off, telling him that VA has become so deeply partisan in the Trump administration that running the agency would leave him open to uncomfortable scrutiny and pressure from the White House, particularly to outsource more veterans’ medical care, this person said. McDonald declined to comment.
Manchin is not a veteran but serves on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.
VA has lacked a permanent leader since Trump fired Shulkin, his first secretary, in March. The former physician and former hospital executive, a holdover from the Obama administration, where he ran the veterans health system, lost favor with the White House after a disparaging inspector general’s report on a business trip he led to Europe and concerns that he was not sufficiently supportive of the administration’s push to outsource private health for veterans.
Large numbers of senior staff have left VA in recent months, frustrated with what they describe as ongoing turmoil and drift.
Wilkie returned to his Defense post in late May to comply with a federal law that prohibits an official who has been nominated for a political appointment from serving in the job in an acting role. The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee is awaiting receipt of his paperwork from the White House and has not yet scheduled a nomination hearing.