White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tried to dispel speculation Tuesday that Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin — often complimented by President Donald Trump over the past year — is no longer in Trump’s good graces.
In a brief response to a question about whether Shulkin and Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, still had Trump’s confidence following recent findings of superfluous travel on taxpayers’ dime, Sanders responded: “I have no reason to believe otherwise.”
“As I’ve said before, if someone no longer has the confidence of the president, you guys will know,” Sanders told reporters during the daily press briefing.
She refused to comment further about findings released by VA Inspector General Michael Missal last week that detailed ethical violations by Shulkin and his chief of staff on a 10-day, taxpayer-funded trip to Europe last summer. Sanders noted the length of the report – 97 pages including a 16-page rebuttal from Shulkin’s lawyers – and said the White House needed more time to review it.
“There’s a secondary review that takes place,” she said. “Until that’s completed, I can’t comment any further.”
Following the release of the IG report last week, VA Chief of Staff Vivieca Wright Simpson announced her retirement, and a former member of Trump’s transition team, Peter O’Rourke, was named her replacement.
Investigators found that Wright Simpson misled an ethics official into approving travel expenses for the VA secretary’s wife, according to the IG report. They also determined Shulkin improperly accepted tickets to Wimbledon for himself and his wife.
Shulkin, his wife and a small staff traveled to Cophenhagen and London in July for a veterans’ summit, but much of the trip – which came at with a price tag of around $122,000 — was spent sightseeing, investigators found.
Following the report’s release, one Republican congressman, Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., said Shulkin isn’t fit to clean up the agency, arguing that as a holdover from former President Barack Obama’s administration, he’s part of the problem.
“I just don’t see how this particular holdover as a secretary can change the culture of the VA, when he’s really such a part of it,” Coffman told reporters last week. “The situation in the IG report just demonstrates that.”
On Friday, the VA issued a similar statement to what Sanders reiterated Tuesday – that the VA would review the IG report in more detail before determining any potential disciplinary actions.
In response to a question about whether he still had Trump’s approval, Shulkin said Friday only that he was in “constant contact” with the White House.
Veterans groups that advise the VA and lawmakers have been waiting the last several days to learn whether Shulkin would be replaced.
After infighting at VA between Shulkin and White House insiders was revealed publicly last week, six major veterans organizations rallied behind the VA secretary, urging Trump to support Shulkin and remove those in the agency who may be working to undermine him.
AMVETS, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Vietnam Veterans of America and Disabled American Veterans all expressed disappointment in the ethical violations found by the IG. But they view Shulkin as the last bastion against privatization of the VA and fear a replacement would facilitate an aggressive expansion of veterans’ medical care into the private sector.
The organizations have been fighting against veterans gaining unlimited access to the private sector, worried too much outside care would erode VA resources and eventually dismantle the VA health care system.
As of Tuesday, it was unsure when the White House would comment about the report or the divisions within the agency.
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