The VA Scandal Takes Center Stage

Image: File photo of U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Shinseki with President Obama during Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery
U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki (L) stands with President Barack Obama during a Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, in this November 11, 2012 file photo. Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel said on Sunday the care given to U.S. veterans by the Department of Veterans Affairs is "not good enough" but offered support for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, who has rejected calls to resign. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/Files (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY HEALTH)JONATHAN ERNST / Reuters

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VA scandal (and the administration’s competency) takes center stage

At 10:00 am ET, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki testifies before a Senate committee on the allegations that 40 veterans died in Arizona awaiting care, and that administrators falsified documents to cover up delays on their appointments. Shinseki’s appearance comes as the White House has appointed Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors to oversee the activities at the VA. It’s not quite Jeff Zients taking over HealthCare.Gov, but it seems pretty close. (Nabors needs to be seen, though, as someone who is going there to help with the management issues, not as a political operative trying to mitigate damage to the administration.) And just like with the failed website from late last year, this VA story is raising questions about the administration’s competency, especially when it comes to agencies and departments outside of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. In fairness to the White House, the VA system has had problems well before President Obama took office. And the backlog at VA hospitals appears to be coming from a combination of 1) an increased number of veterans after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 2) the aging of the Vietnam veterans. But when it comes to the presidency, if something happens on your watch, you own it. And for the folks inside the Obama White House, they’re finally acting like they now realize they own this VA story -- after spending perhaps more time than they should have keeping their distance.

An important day for Shinseki

As for Shinseki’s testimony, this is an important day for him as politicians are increasingly calling for his resignation. He has to project both contrition and ownership. After all, style matters -- especially when the scandal is essentially about management of the department. NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell got an advanced copy of Shinseki’s opening statement, and here’s what he’s expected to say: “VA takes any allegations about patient care or employee misconduct very seriously. I am personally angered and saddened by any adverse consequence that a Veteran might experience while in, or as a result of, our care. In response to allegations about scheduling and delays at the Phoenix VA Health Care System (PVAHCS), I invited an independent investigation by the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) to conduct a comprehensive, thorough and timely review. If these allegations are true, they are completely unacceptable-to Veterans, to me, and to our dedicated VHA employees. If they are substantiated by OIG, responsible and timely action will be taken.”

Bill Clinton responds to Rove and Benghazi criticism

Meanwhile, Bill Clinton’s and Chris Christie’s separate remarks at a fiscal summit in DC on Thursday provided updates on 2016 stories we’ve been following over the past few months. Clinton responded to Karl Rove’s suggestion of potential health problems for Hillary Clinton. "First they said she faked her concussion and now they say she is auditioning for a part on ‘The Walking Dead,’” Bill Clinton said, adding: “You can't be too upset about it, it's just the beginning. They'll get better and better at it. I am still waiting for them to admit there is nothing to Whitewater. It's just part of the deal.” (Clinton saying “it’s just the beginning” sure seems to be a clue that Hillary isn’t backing away from a White House run.) Clinton also responded to the criticisms of his wife’s handling of the Benghazi attacks. “Hillary did what she should have done,” saying she ordered an independent review after the attack and complaints about security there. “They gave 27 recommendations, she looked at them and started implementing them.” One final point about that Rove suggestion: Did he end up doing the Clintons a big favor here? If she runs and is asked about her health, the Clinton camp is likely to counter, “I see you’re doing Karl Rove’s bidding.” As we said earlier in the week, medical records are a legitimate inquiry for all presidential candidates. But someone as political as Rove probably isn’t the best person for the GOP to start that conversation.

Christie says Bridge-gate will ultimately be a “footnote”

After Clinton spoke, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was asked about the Bridge-gate scandal and if it would affect him in 2016. His answer: “I think this will be a footnote by the time any of those decisions need to be made.” He also was asked if he was still thinking about a White House run and when he might have a decision. “Yes, and later.” That answer was a departure from what he has said in the past about 2016 -- that his main focus is being New Jersey governor. Both comments were particularly striking given that in reality, it hasn’t been a good past 10 days for Christie’s Bridge-gate story before the legislative committee investigating the scandal. Here was the New York Times headline last week: “Ex-Christie Aide, Testifying in Bridge Inquiry, Portrays a Highly Political Office.” And here is what Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said before the panel, per the Newark Star Ledger, appearing to contradict Christie’s own timeline of knowledge: “Drewniak said he informed members of the governor’s senior staff in early November that he had been told that administration staffers were aware of or involved in the controversial lane closures. He said he told Christie’s chief counsel that Port Authority official David Wildstein had told him this but stressed to the panel that he wasn’t sure Wildstein was telling the truth. He said he did not remind the governor of these accusations prior to news conferences on the debacle, saying he believed that by telling senior staffers, the issue was already known — or "in the blood stream" of the administration.”

NBC poll: Majority continues to support the death penalty

NBC News is out with a new poll (conducted by our NBC/WSJ pollsters) on attitudes about the death penalty after that botched execution in Oklahoma. The findings: The botched execution didn’t change the public’s views of the death penalty, with 59% supporting it and 35% opposed. That said, this 59% in support is down considerably from the 1990s, when more than 70% supported the death penalty, according to Pew surveys asking the exact same question. (Of course, those were the days that “three strikes and you’re out” was the political battle cry on crime.) As expected, this support-vs.-opposition largely breaks down along partisan lines -- 78% of Republicans back the death penalty, while 50% of Democrats oppose it. Also in the poll, 33% say that if lethal injection was NOT an option for future executions, then they want the death penalty stopped altogether. And 48% believe that execution is a worse punishment for a person convicted of murder, while 46% say life in prison (without parole) is. The poll was conducted May 7-10 of 800 registered voters, and has a margin of error of plus-minus 3.5 percentage points.

Updates on the May 20th contests

Turning to the midterms, here are some relatively recent updates on next week’s “Super Tuesday” contests: In Kentucky, Matt Bevin released a new TV ad hitting Mitch McConnell for caving to Obama on the debt ceiling “without a single spending cut”… In Georgia, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution paints the likely runoff in the Georgia Senate race as a "remake of the bitter, last-ditch 2012 presidential primary battle between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich” (with Perdue as Romney and Kingston as Gingrich)… And in Pennsylvania,Tom Wolf is way ahead in the Democratic primary for governor, per a new Harper poll. (And he's got a 67%-20% favorable rating). Just stunning how he’s running away with this thing. Bad news for Corbett, the exact OPPOSITE of the type of candidate he wanted to run against.

Not a good story for Scott Brown

Folks, this isn’t a good story for Scott Brown. “New Hampshire Senate candidate Scott Brown called Senate Republican leadership to urge them to stop a bipartisan energy efficiency bill, so as not to give Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), the bill's Democratic sponsor and his Democratic opponent, something to run on,” the Huffington Post wrote.

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