A major veterans group is urging President Donald Trump to reconsider his choice for acting Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary.
Trump tapped Robert Wilkie, the Department of Defense undersecretary for personnel and readiness, to oversee the agency following the ouster of VA Secretary David Shulkin. But AMVETS National Commander Marion Polk said in his letter to Trump that Deputy VA Secretary Thomas Bowman should instead be named interim secretary.
"While Mr. Wilkie may be a very bright person and leader, he does not know the VA or its problems," Polk wrote. "He's at square one, as any outsider would be. And while there's no doubt he would grow into the position over time, veterans don't have time."
Shulkin, M.D., who was popular with veterans' groups such as AMVETS, was fired late last week after weeks of controversy surrounding his travel expenses. A VA Office of Inspector General report found that Shulkin's travel expenses on a recent trip to Europe cost the agency more than $122,000.
AMVETS also expressed skepticism about Trump's pick for a permanent VA secretary, White House doctor Ronny Jackson. The group's executive director, Joe Chenelly, said in a statement that he is "deeply concerned" about Jackson's ability to run a complex bureaucracy such as the VA.
My letter to @POTUS @realDonaldTrump. We recognize Mr. Wilkie for his years of civil service & impressive career with our government. But we believe Deputy Secretary Bowman is what’s best for #veterans. pic.twitter.com/bvNV8LwgkZ— Marion Polk (@AMVETSNatlCmdr) April 3, 2018
If Trump replaced Wilkie with Bowman, he would be elevating someone with extensive experience within the VA and who should be in the role based on federal law, Polk wrote. This especially crucial, he said, as it could take a significant amount of time for Jackson to be confirmed.
"Sidestepping Bowman in favor of an outsider wholly unfamiliar with the VA is a confusing choice that only serves to erode confidence in the VA as an institution during this critical time," Polk wrote.
Meanwhile, the White House has offered conflicting accounts on whether Shulkin willingly resigned from his position at the VA, or if he was pushed out. Shulkin maintains that he was fired for political reasons, as he was an "obstacle" to those within the Trump administration who want to privatize the VA health system.
White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters told the Associated Press on Sunday that Shulkin resigned. However, Mercedes Schlapp, the White House director of communications, told Fox News on Monday that Chief of Staff John Kelly gave Shulkin "the opportunity to resign."
"Obviously the key here is that the president has made a decision," Schlapp said. "He wanted a change in the Department of Veterans Affairs. He felt it was time."