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VA chief Shulkin’s job is safe, White House says, unless ‘other stuff comes out’

Lawmakers question VA Secretary David Shulkin about his trip to Europe during testimony this month on Capitol Hill. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock)

White House officials have told Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin that his job is safe, according to people familiar with the matter who indicated Tuesday that President Trump decided to “stomach the story” about Shulkin’s alleged misuse of taxpayer money during a 10-day trip to Europe.

The president’s decision was communicated to Shulkin by White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, according to an administration official who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the situation candidly. Trump “personally likes Shulkin,” the official said, cautioning, however, that “if other stuff comes out, this could change, but for now, he’s safe.”

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday that she has “no reason to believe” Trump had lost confidence in Shulkin.

The White House had been silent on Shulkin’s fate since the release last week of an inspector general’s report accusing the secretary and his senior staff of misleading VA’s ethics office about aspects of his travel. Shulkin has disputed the findings, alleging in response that he and those close to him are the target of a coordinated effort by other Trump appointees to force him from the agency.

Separately, in an apparent sign that Shulkin’s objections are being taken seriously, VA’s inspector general has begun investigating the claim that his former chief of staff’s email account was compromised by those seeking to undermine his leadership, according to three people with knowledge of the matter.

Vivieca Wright Simpson, Shulkin’s former chief of staff, announced her intent to retire last week after the inspector general’s report accused her of doctoring an email to justify allowing the government to pay for Shulkin’s wife to join him on the trip to Europe. Shulkin has promised to pay back his wife’s airfare and has maintained that he did nothing wrong during the trip, which included a conference on veterans’ mental health but also some sightseeing and complimentary tickets to a London tennis match.

Shulkin told reporters last week that VA officials “have found there are people sending emails” from Wright Simpson’s account “that aren’t her.” The inspector general’s follow-on investigation was expected to take place quickly and be completed this week, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

Curt Cashour, a VA spokesman, referred questions to the White House.

Shulkin has called attention to a lengthy statement he wrote last week defending his trip to Europe as essential and beneficial, and described the inspector general’s findings as “neither accurate or objective,” according to a report last week by Military Times. But within hours Shulkin’s statement was removed from VA’s website and replaced by a short news release, written by Cashour, saying only that the inspector general’s report was under review.

The White House said Friday that it was installing a new chief of staff at VA, Peter O’Rourke, previously a member of Trump’s transition team who was running VA’s office of accountability and whistleblower protection.

In the days after the inspector general’s report was made public, some leading veterans advocacy groups rallied to defend Shulkin, expressing their fear that his departure would cause chaos and create a leadership vacuum. The groups, while showing support for Shulkin, also have signaled their disappointment with the revelations about Shulkin’s travel.

In public, Trump has called Shulkin, “our David,” and as recently as June told the VA secretary he would never hear Trump’s old reality TV show catchphrase, “You’re fired.”

“We’ll never have to use those words on our David,” Trump said at the time, using his thumb and index finger to pantomime firing a gun. “We will never use those words on you, that’s for sure.”

But in recent months, some of the president’s other appointees have expressed frustration with Shulkin, saying he hasn’t been willing to go far enough in offering veterans access to privately provided health care, a stated goal of the Trump administration. Veterans advocates and union leaders fear that could lead to VA’s dismantling.