The head of the Department of Veterans Affairs is running out of allies and lifelines after he was criticized for vacationing on the taxpayer’s dime. The worst may be yet to come.
Embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin is likely to be the subject of another damaging investigation as early as next week, one that could prove politically fatal.
The top watchdog for the Department of Veterans Affairs is preparing a report that is expected to criticize Shulkin over his use of his security detail to run personal errands, The Daily Beast has learned. Three sources familiar with the situation say the forthcoming Inspector General report will likely fuel criticism of Shulkin’s use of official department resources and could further erode his standing in the administration.
Sources spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive internal matters.
Reports of the latest IG’s findings have been swirling internally, but its specific allegations are not yet clear. Sources stressed that the IG has been known to qualify language in prior reports and make substantive changes late in the process. These sources expect the watchdog to release its findings in the next two weeks.
VA spokesperson Curt Cashour referred questions about the report to the IG’s office. That office declined to comment, telling The Daily Beast on Friday that it does not confirm or deny the existence of ongoing investigations.
Shulkin, an Obama-era holdover, is already on thin ice with the White House owing to a separate IG report last month, which found that he improperly expended taxpayer resources so that his wife could join him on a trip to Europe last summer. During that trip, both Shulkin and his wife attended the Wimbledon tennis tournament, claiming (it appears falsely) that they were provided the tickets by a family friend. That report also found that Shulkin’s chief of staff had forged an email, ostensibly showing that Shulkin was slated to receive an award from the Danish government, in order to create a post-facto pretext for his wife’s attendance.
Shulkin’s attorneys vehemently disputed the IG’s findings, and the secretary suggested that his chief of staff’s email account may have been hacked. The IG’s office released a letter this week saying there was no evidence of such an electronic intrusion.
Publicly, the administration remains fully behind Shulkin. Veterans service organizations met with White House chief of staff John Kelly in the West Wing’s Roosevelt Room on Monday. A source present at the meeting, also attended by Domestic Policy Council director Andrew Bremberg and Office of Public Liaison Deputy Director Jennifer Korn, told The Daily Beast that Kelly expressed the Trump White House’s full “confidence in” Shulkin and shot down any suggestion that he would be ousted from his position.
The White House press office referred questions about the forthcoming report to the VA. As for Shulkin’s standing in the administration, spokesman Ninio Fetalvo noted that press secretary Sarah Sanders, on Thursday, had said that “The President is glad for the job that [Shulkin]’s been doing in reforming the VA and modernizing the VA.”
Behind the scenes, however, dissatisfaction with Shulkin is high and there is a sense that his tenure could be coming to a close, with the president and his adviser using the opportunity of damaging reports to find a more ideologically like-minded replacement.
“I wouldn’t call him a dead man walking,” said one source familiar with the situation, “but it’s close to that.”
Multiple sources in and outside of the administration independently noted a significant uptick in Shulkin’s suspiciousness and anxiety of late and have described to him as acting “extremely paranoid.” Two people familiar with the situation said that Shulkin this week had even ordered an armed guard to stand outside his office on the 10th floor of the VA. According to these sources, the VA secretary also cut off 10th floor access earlier this week to multiple VA appointees who he apparently suspected of disloyalty.
Cashour declined to address those measures, saying the department “does not comment generally on the secretary’s security arrangements.”
There is additional frustration with Shulkin for undertaking, what appears to be, a unilateral media outreach operation, partially through the help of a public relations firm that was hired to deal with the mounting scrutiny of his conduct. Few internally even know which firm has been hired, and two sources told The Daily Beast that VA employees simply refer to it as “the firm.”
The secretary seems determined to purge people from the agency whom he regards as enemies and has claimed he has the White House’s support in doing so. The White House has had to intervene to prevent Shulkin from firing a number of senior political appointees, according to one source familiar with the situation.
Among those in Shulkin’s crosshairs is John Ullyot, the VA’s assistant secretary for public affairs, who has been trying to convince lawmakers on Capitol Hill to call the White House and explicitly recommend sacking the secretary, according to a USA Today report that also mentioned Cashour by name. (Both denied the report, saying they had never recommended that their boss be removed.) Others who Shulkin views as prominent adversaries are Darin Selnick, a White House veterans affairs adviser, and Jake Leinenkugel, a White House senior adviser on veterans affairs, both of whom Shulkin has reportedly blamed for attempting to subvert or undermine his authority.
Outside of the building, Shulkin’s standing is precarious. Rep. Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, officially called for the secretary’s replacement this week in a letter to President Donald Trump.
But Shulkin retains some powerful allies in Congress too, including Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN), who chairs the House Veterans Affairs panel. “I know there was a lot of drama last week in Washington,” he said this week at a gathering of the American Legion in Washington. “Secretary Shulkin has done a phenomenal job, and I want to tell you all that I will walk hand-in-hand, arm-in-arm to get the work done that we need to.”
Shulkin has even drawn some lukewarm defenses from progressives who are concerned that his departure would open the door to a more conservative VA secretary who might try to entirely remake the agency’s health system.
“David Shulkin has done himself no favors,” Will Fischer, director of government relations at VoteVets, a progressive veterans organization, told The Daily Beast. “We are not defending his actions. But we want people to realize there is a coordinated effort to destroy and privative our VA system. The people who want that know that if they can get Shulkin out it will happen all the quicker.”
03.02.18 4:36 PM ET