Trump nominates acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie for permanent job in surprise move

Ex-Pentagon undersecretary Robert Wilkie for personnel and readiness had overseen a new policy aimed at stemming harassment after an online nude-photo sharing scandal rocked the Marine Corps.

Published: 19th May 2018 02:37 AM  |   Last Updated: 19th May 2018 02:41 AM   |  A+A-

President Donald Trump shakes hands with acting Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie after announcing he will nominate him to lead the department. (AP Photo)

By AFP

WASHINGTON: In a surprise announcement that caught the candidate off-guard, President Donald Trump said today he'll nominate acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie to permanently lead the beleaguered department.

Trump spilled the news about Wilkie at a White House event on prison reform as he introduced Cabinet members in attendance.

When Trump got to Wilkie, he said, "I'll be informing him in a little while - he doesn't know this yet - that we're going to be putting his name up for nomination to be secretary."

Trump added, "I'm sorry that I ruined the surprise."

The president had already appeared impressed with Wilkie, saying publicly last month that he's been doing a "great job" at VA.

Today, Trump upped his assessment of Wilkie's job performance to "incredible job.

Wilkie has led the VA since Trump fired David Shulkin in March amid an ethics scandal and mounting rebellion within the agency.

Trump then turned to Ronny Jackson, the Navy doctor who had been his personal physician, but Jackson abruptly withdrew last month amid allegations about his professionalism.

Wilkie, 56, is a former Pentagon undersecretary for personnel and readiness who oversaw a new policy aimed at stemming harassment in the military after an online nude-photo sharing scandal rocked the Marine Corps.

The Senate confirmed him unanimously for the post.

At the VA, Wilkie has sought to rebuild morale at a department beset with inner turmoil and rebellion over Trump's push to expand access to private care.

On Thursday, he announced a major USD 10 billion contract with Cerner Corp. to overhaul electronic health records for millions of veterans, a 10-year project that aims to improve mental health care and ease access to private providers.

Wilkie's selection reflects Trump's desire to have a steady hand leading the government's second-largest department following the abrupt withdrawal by Jackson, who had never managed a large workforce.

The Pentagon is the government's largest department, with more than 700,000 employees.

Veterans groups expressed support for the nomination.

Garry Augustine, executive director of Disabled American Veterans' Washington headquarters, said he considered it a "good sign" that Wilkie seemed receptive to hearing from veterans' service organizations.

"We're optimistic that we'll be able to work with him and his staff," Augustine said.

"He's doing what he needs to do to get up to speed.

Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said veterans "need a committed, focused leader who will always put veterans above politics.

He said Wilkie "will have to prove to millions of veterans nationwide that he is up to this mammoth, sacred leadership task."

Dan Caldwell, executive director of the conservative Concerned Veterans for America, called Wilkie an "outstanding choice."

"He is somebody who has shown that he can manage the department in a time of immense change," Caldwell said. "He unequivocally supports the president's agenda for reforming the VA and we think that he will be on the same page as the White House."

Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said he enjoyed working with Wilkie in his acting capacity.

He did not announce a date for Wilkie's confirmation hearing.

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