Embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said Wednesday that he has put disputes within his agency and with Trump administration appointees behind him – and the White House signaled that Shulkin still has his backing.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said that Shulkin has done a “great job” and has taken an “aggressive approach” as directed by President Donald Trump since being named as the agency’s head.
Sanders was asked about the release earlier Wednesday of a damning inspector general report about issues at the Washington DC VA medical center that the inspector general, Michael Missal, attributed to “failed leadership” and systemic issues.
“We’re going to do everything we can to protect the veterans and help veterans in this country,” she said.
At a news conference earlier Wednesday, Shulkin addressed both the reports of turmoil within the agency and the inspector general’s findings.
Shulkin told reporters that he had spoken with Trump as recently as Tuesday and that internal struggles have been put to rest.
“There is no doubt that we have been in an unfortunate distraction. Those days are over. We are all now focused on the work that has to be here that’s important for us to do,” Shulkin told reporters.
The White House has made clear, Shulkin said, “that I am the secretary and my job is to fix this system to veterans. And things that are not productive are not tolerated.” He said that there is “too much to do to be distracted with the political infighting.”
Wednesday’s inspector general report was the latest to put Shulkin’s leadership in question. The probe found a slew of management failures at the Washington, DC facility that put patients at risk, according to the report. The report does not say whether or not Shulkin was told of the problems, but says that problems at the medical center were largely ignored – despite repeated warnings – since 2013.
Missal, the VA’s inspector general, said that there was a “culture of complacency among VA and Veterans Health Administration leaders at multiple levels” who failed to address issues “with a sense of urgency or purpose.”
According to the report, Shulkin said he didn’t “recall” senior VA leaders bringing issues at the Washington, DC medical center to his attention while he served as undersecretary of health from 2015-2016.
And on Wednesday, Shulkin cast the findings as “a failure of every level.”
“It’s unacceptable to me,” he said. “Fortunately, this has not led to any known patient harm”
Shulkin, who had bipartisan support when he was named to lead the VA, has been locked in a turf war with Trump administration political appointees who he has said were working to subvert his authority and oust him.
The release last month of an inspector general report on a trip that Shulkin took to Europe last summer brought more scrutiny on Shulkin’s job. The report found “serious derelictions” by Shulkin and senior staff related to the trip and concluded that Shulkin misused taxpayer funds and inappropriately accepted Wimbledon tickets, and that his then-chief of staff doctored an email to justify the department paying for his wife’s airfare to accompany him.
Shulkin disputed both the conclusion of the report and its process and maintained he did nothing wrong, though he said he would comply with all of the inspector general’s recommendations.