Shulkin cries foul over his ouster at the VA
In his latest Cabinet shake-up, President Trump last week ousted beleaguered Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and tapped as his replacement Ronny Jackson, the chief White House physician. Shulkin, a holdover from the Obama administration, had been embroiled in infighting with politically appointed aides and mired in scandal over his use of taxpayer money for a trip to Europe last summer with his wife. The former hospital administrator claimed his firing—which Trump announced on Twitter—was caused by “political forces” who want to privatize the struggling agency. “They saw me as an obstacle to privatization,” Shulkin wrote, “who had to be removed.”
Democrats immediately questioned whether Jackson has the management experience to oversee the government’s second-largest department, which has 378,000 employees and has struggled to provide care to 9 million veterans. An active-duty rear admiral in the Navy, who served as White House physician for Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, Jackson made headlines in January for his effusive comments on Trump’s annual physical, in which he praised the president’s “incredibly good genes” and joked that if Trump’s diet were better “he might live to be 200 years old.” At a fundraiser last month, Trump showered praise on the physician, saying, “He’s like central casting—like a Hollywood star.”
What the columnists said
Shulkin “had to go,” said Noah Rothman in CommentaryMagazine.com. His 10-day “business” trip to Europe last year—half of which he spent sightseeing—cost taxpayers $122,000. During the outing, he improperly accepted tickets to a Wimbledon match as a gift. And to try to justify Mrs. Shulkin’s airfare, his chief of staff doctored an email to suggest the secretary was receiving a nonexistent award from the Danish government. Yet by claiming he was the victim of a “brutal power struggle” over VA privatization, Shulkin “made himself out to be a martyr.” Don’t be fooled.
Shulkin’s travel scandal was undeniably “embarrassing,” said John Cassidy in NewYorker.com. But he was an “able” secretary who garnered praise from major veterans’ groups. “Given all the grift and chaos” elsewhere in the administration, it seems strange that the president would be so upset over airfare to Europe. That’s why Shulkin’s theory about his dismissal seems perfectly plausible. During his tenure, he “approved the contracting out of some services to private providers,” but resisted the widespread privatization being pushed by conservative think tanks and the Koch brothers. That earned him some “influential enemies,” who may well have “used the expenses scandal” to bring him down.
Either way, the Senate should block Jackson’s nomination, said Mikki Kendall in WashingtonPost.com. The VA is a sprawling bureaucracy, with 1,200 health facilities and a budget of nearly $200 billion. It’s also “deeply dysfunctional,” thanks to “chronic understaffing, limited investment in infrastructure,” and confusing guidelines governing the allocation of benefits. Jackson’s “only apparent qualification” for running the department is his knack for presidential flattery. “Veterans deserve better.”