Recently fired VA secretary David Shulkin says President Trump is doing a good job by demanding excellence from members of his Cabinet but needs a better team supporting him to be successful.
“I think that he’s not being well served by all the people around him,” Shulkin told USA TODAY. “As big of an organization as he needs to run, you need to have the right people around you with the right team, and, you know, we see with all the turnover and different things going on that are happening in the White House, that he’s still trying to figure that out.”
He said the president has every right to have the people around him whom he trusts and wants to hear from. “But I think many of the things that we’re seeing and that we’re struggling with have to do with building that team and the staff around him,” he said.
Shulkin spent a little more than a year in Trump’s Cabinet before the president fired him Wednesday, announcing the news in a tweet. He was the only holdover from the Obama administration in the Cabinet and the third member to depart since Trump took office. He has also been the most publicly vocal on his way out.
He engaged in a series of television interviews and wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times warning against privatizing the Department of Veterans Affairs. The president suggested Thursday that he let Shulkin go in part because he wasn’t aligned with his vision to quickly expand veterans’ options to get VA-funded care in the private sector.
Although that was a key campaign promise, Shulkin said in an interview with USA TODAY that it wasn’t the focus of his discussions with Trump leading up to his selection as secretary in January last year.
“We talked about the essential need to fix the VA — that he felt passionately that veterans weren’t getting the type of services and care that they needed, and I agreed with him,” he said.
Shulkin pitched his experience at the agency — he had served as undersecretary for health since July 2015 — and his belief that he could speed the pace of improvements to the agency. But in the end, it wasn’t fast enough for the president, and Shulkin said he agreed.
“I’m impatient, he’s impatient, the country’s impatient. We all want to do this faster and better,” he said. Still, he said the size of the organization and the fact that issues became engrained over so many years make fixes difficult.
“You can’t quickly turn on a dime and see the type of progress that people want in the timeframe that you want always,” he said.
Being in Trump’s Cabinet
Shulkin said the president often called him and spoke about policy. He said in Cabinet meetings, Trump was always very inquisitive and engaged.
“You get a sense that he has a purpose to the way he’s running the government and that he does want to hear from you as Cabinet members,” he said.
And Trump was always very direct about what he wanted.
“You never leave a Cabinet meeting without having clear direction,” Shulkin said.
He didn’t say if the president changed or waffled on those directions day to day or meeting to meeting, as he has been known to do.
On Wednesday, Shulkin said he received a call from Trump and they discussed VA policies and whether it would be possible to speed up the pace of improvements to the agency. The president made no mention that he planned to fire him in a few hours. That job was left to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.
“Later on that afternoon, towards the end of the day, I got a call from Gen. Kelly, who said that the president had made a decision,” Shulkin said. “It was a very short time afterwards that I guess the president tweeted.”
On his chosen replacement
Shulkin, a physician who still saw patients while leading the VA, is friends with Trump’s pick to take over the agency, White House physician and Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson. He said they met when Shulkin joined the VA in 2015. Jackson served as physician to President Obama and George W. Bush before that.
“We… didn’t spend a lot of time talking about policy and politics, but more things that friends talk about and things that doctors talk about,” he said. “I think he’s a very honorable man, he’s a great public servant.”
The chief concern about Jackson raised publicly so far has been his lack of management experience. The VA has more than 370,000 employees and 1,200 medical facilities across the country. But Shulkin said experience is not what matters.
“One of the most important characteristics right now of a Cabinet member is to have the trust of the president,” he said.
“I believe that Dr Jackson, to be successful, is going to have to build a strong team around him. This job is such a big job that I don’t think anybody’s prepared to run an organization this size, as complex as this is, so this is about a team that delivers on results, and I think Dr. Jackson can do that.”
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