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Trump considering firing VA Sec. Shulkin amid VA infighting, slow progress: report

U.S. Sec. of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin (Roberto Koltun/Miami Herald/TNS)
March 12, 2018

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin is again coming under fire following a report that President Donald Trump is unhappy with what he’s hearing about the department in light of recent events.

A VA Inspector General report last month revealed that Shulkin apparently tried to cover up a taxpayer-funded 10-day trip for his wife to Europe last summer – it found doctored emails and discovered Shulkin’s then-chief of staff made false statements in order to reportedly disguise the vacation as a government trip.

Since then, there has been a lot of infighting at the VA, and Shulkin continues to talk directly to the press about how he has been given the OK to fire VA personnel who did not support him.

Jonathan Swan at Axios had the exclusive scoop on Sunday that Trump is unhappy with how things are going at the VA, and that the President could end up firing Shulkin if this drama keeps up.

“Trump has been telling associates he doesn’t know what’s happened at the VA, but he doesn’t like what he’s hearing and he may have to fire Shulkin if the situation further deteriorates,” Swan reported.

Shulkin has been doing a lot of talking about how he wants to clean house at the VA. He has recently met with both Chief of Staff John Kelly and Trump, but rather than focus on veterans’ issues and do the job at hand, Shulkin has then gone to the media and said the White House supports him cleaning house at the VA.

Kelly had reportedly told Shulkin that the White House would help with personnel issues, but never did he or Trump give Shulkin the green light to fire political appointees, Axios pointed out.

Shulkin even went so far as to talk to The New York Times, which then wrote a March 6 article reporting that Shulkin said Chief of Staff Kelly “supported his making changes at the department, including the removal of any staff members who did not support him.”

“Whether he can prevail in actually firing the officials — rather than just having them transferred elsewhere in the government — remains to be seen,” The Times reported. “Political appointees serve at the pleasure of the president, and it was not clear whether [Kelly] or [Trump] would back their ouster.”

The misuse of VA funds is just one of the many claims against Shulkin and his staff as part of a larger investigation. Shulkin now finds himself among at least five other current or former Trump Administration cabinet members under investigation for misusing government funds.

Last fall, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned after it was discovered he cost tax payers millions in chartered flights for himself and his staff. Price ended up writing a check for more than $50,000 to cover some of those expenses.

Vivieca Wright Simpson, then the VA’s third-most senior official, altered language in email exchanges with an aide who was coordinating the trip, and Shulkin apparently knew about it. Simpson made it appear as though Shulkin was receiving an award from the Danish government, which she then allegedly used as a reason to justify paying for Shulkin’s wife to attend the trip. Inspector General Michael Missal said in the report that the VA paid out more than $4,300 for her airfare.

Wright Simpson has since retired amid the travel scandal, and Shulkin is now constantly fighting with his VA staff, and he continues to talk directly to the press.

The VA IG’s 97-page investigative report concluded that Shulkin and other individuals working alongside him have continually misled agency ethics officials and the public about expenses. They allege he not only purposely omitted details of his trips, but also improperly accepted gifts of Wimbledon tennis match tickets and even directed an aide to act as what the report called a “personal travel concierge” to him and his wife.

“Although the (inspector general’s office) cannot determine the value VA gained from the Secretary and his delegation’s three and a half days of meetings in Copenhagen and London at a cost of at least $122,334, the investigation revealed serious derelictions by VA personnel,” the watchdog concluded.

Following the investigation, Shulkin wrote a check to reimburse the government for the cost of his wife’s travel expenses, and, according to his attorneys, he intends on repaying the cost of the tennis tickets, as well.

However, in his formal response, Shulkin wrote that VA staffers had suggested that his wife’s travel expenses be paid for by the agency. He even went as far as to say that the inspector general’s description of the trip was “entirely inaccurate” and that it “reeks of an agenda.”

Wright Simpson, Shulkin’s former aide who is accused of doctoring the emails, also dismissed any wrongdoing.

In an interview with investigators, she claimed she did not recall whether she altered the email. In a follow-up interview, she did not directly respond to questions regarding the email, and repeatedly said: “I responded appropriately to the email.”

The email in question was written by an aide and included the line: “We’re working on having a dinner at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in the honor of SECVA (Secretary of Veterans Affairs), but that has not been confirmed yet.”

According to the report, Wright Simpson altered the email to make it appear that the aide had written: “We’re having a special recognition dinner at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in the honor of SECVA.”

This false confirmation was then forwarded to ethic officials to approve Shulkin’s wife as an all-expenses paid travel.

Shulkin received no award or special recognition on the trip.