WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump ousted Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin on Wednesday, announcing his intent to nominate the White House physician, Adm. Ronny Jackson, to fill the post and ending weeks of speculation about when the embattled cabinet official would leave the administration.
Trump tweeted a confirmation of the news, which was first reported by Reuters. In a statement, the president described Jackson as "highly trained and qualified and as a service member himself." Trump also thanked Shulkin for his service and the "many great things we did together at Veterans Affairs."
Jackson has been a White House physician to Presidents Trump and Barack Obama. Robert Wilkie, an undersecretary of defense, will serve as interim secretary until Jackson is confirmed by the Senate, Trump said in a follow-up tweet.
Shulkin's departure comes amid a spate of other high level administration exits over the past month — including the secretary of state, national security adviser, top economic adviser, and communications director.
Shulkin, who served as undersecretary in charge of the veterans’ health system during the Obama administration, clashed with Trump political appointees who surrounded him at the VA. Some of the tension arose from a central policy dispute: The Trump appointees, both within the VA and at the White House, want to see the VA transition to subsidizing private health care for veterans, while Shulkin resisted those efforts.
But the fight had become increasingly personal, particularly in the wake of an inspector general’s report in February that found taxpayers had picked up the tab for Shulkin’s wife when she accompanied him on a European business trip. That provided ammunition to Shulkin’s foes, and because he didn’t trust the Trump-appointed communications staff around him, he retained his own public-relations counsel.
Shulkin’s camp came to believe that Trump political appointees were trying to get him fired, according to reports. He sought White House permission to dismiss them, telling The New York Times earlier this month that he had secured that authority from Trump and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.
On Thursday, Shulkin spoke out about his departure in an interview with NPR, and blasted efforts to privatize the VA in an op-ed published in The Times.
"I was not against reforming VA, but I was against privatization," he told NPR, adding that he was not allowed to release a statement through the White House Wednesday.
"We've gotten so much done," he said. "But in the last few months, it really has changed. Not from Congress, but from these internal political appointees that were trying to politicize VA and trying to make sure our progress stopped. It's been very difficult."
In the op-ed, he wrote that the reforms he initiated "intensified the ambitions of people who want to put the VA health care in the hands of the private sector."
"They saw me as an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed," Shulkin wrote. "That is because I am convinced that privatization is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans."
"As I prepare to leave government, I am struck by a recurring thought: It should not be this hard to serve your country," he added.
Jackson, for his part, stepped into the media spotlight earlier this year when he briefed the press on the results of Trump’s yearly physical examination. At the time, he deemed Trump "very sharp" mentally and in “excellent” overall health — though he did recommend a better diet and more exercise for the commander-in-chief.
Jackson has no experience steering a bureaucracy. His rise to the top of the government's second largest agency comes one week after Trump promoted him to rear admiral.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi seized on Jackson's "lack of VA leadership experience," calling it "concerning," while also giving a sense of what Democrats might focus on during Jackson's coming confirmation hearings.
"The abrupt dismissal of Secretary Shulkin is a troubling step in the Trump Administration’s ultimate goal of VA privatization," Pelosi said in a statement after the news broke.
The top Democrat on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, said "Shulkin has served honorably" and that he looks "forward to meeting Admiral Jackson soon and seeing if he is up to the job."
In recent weeks, Trump has said that he is "close” to assembling the Cabinet he desires — fueling speculation about who might be next on the president's chopping block.
Shulkin is just one of several scandal-plagued Cabinet members in Trump's administration. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt are battling their own scandals over high-priced travel, while Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has faced congressional grillings over the $31,000 dining room set ordered for his office.