Staffers at the Department of Veterans Affairs loyal to President Donald Trump have reassigned or remove staffers perceived as disloyal to the President and his agenda for veterans, people familiar with the actions told The Washington Post.
The Post reported that the transfers include more than a dozen career civil servants in leadership positions at the VA’s headquarters, who were given lower-visibility roles. The staffers say they were given no reasons for the changes, according to The Washington Post.
The Post said the moves have been conducted by political appointees led by the VA’s acting secretary, Peter O’Rourke. They are the latest sign of fractures at the agency, which came to a head months ago when former Secretary David Shulkin was ousted. The VA continues to suffer from sinking morale and has been shedding senior staff for months.
The Washington Post first reported, and CNN confirmed with a source familiar with the situation, that at least a half-dozen senior career staffers at the Veterans Benefits Administration have been transferred to less influential roles, some in other cities. But the reassignments and removals go beyond that part of the sprawling agency, according to The Washington Post, and have taken place as the President’s nominee to lead the VA, Robert Wilkie, awaits full Senate confirmation.
A Pentagon spokesperson told CNN that Wilkie, who remains in his job as the head of military personnel at the Defense Department as he awaits the Senate vote, was not aware of or involved with the decisions.
“Any decisions made following Mr. Wilkie’s departure as Acting SecVA were made by the current VA leadership and Mr. Wilkie was not aware, nor a part of those decisions,” Maj. Carla Gleason, a Pentagon spokesperson, told CNN. “It would be inappropriate for him to comment on this in his current role as USD.”
VA spokesman Curt Cashour told CNN that Wilkie has had “zero involvement in VA decisions since he returned to the Department of Defense May 30.” Cashour said that the personnel moves “are what’s required to ensure VA is performing at its best.
“Under President Trump, VA won’t wait to take necessary action when it comes to improving the department and its service to Veterans,” he added.
Cashour added that in some cases, “employees who were wedded to the status quo and not on board with this administration’s policies have departed VA,” noting that some left the agency willingly, and others “against their will as they were about to be fired.”
“It’s understandable that some of these individuals would want to shift blame away from themselves in an attempt to save face. But the bottom line is that in President Trump’s VA, if employees aren’t getting the job done for veterans, it’s time for them to move on,” Cashour said.
O’Rourke was on Capitol Hill this week for a hearing about the VA’s whistleblower protection office, which he used to lead, and was questioned by multiple members of Congress about the agency’s staffing. In one exchange,Rep. Scott Peters, a California Democrat, asked O’Rourke “under what circumstances is disagreeing with the administration a fireable offense?”
Peters cited a VA news release issued in April in which the agency says that “under VA’s new leadership, which is now firmly aligned with President Trump and his priorities, the department’s operations have improved in many ways.” The release goes on to say, “In a number of cases, employees who were wedded to the status quo and not on board with this administration’s policies or pace of change have now departed VA.”
O’Rourke told Peters that when any agency experiences an organizational shift, sometimes “folks realize, maybe on their own, that they don’t want to be there.”
“I think there’s a few cases that we could look at of folks in senior positions where they advocated for a different approach and then the organization … went in a different direction, and they felt like that wasn’t a place they didn’t want to be anymore,” O’Rourke said.
In a separate exchange during the hearing, Rep. Elizabeth Esty, a Connecticut Democrat, asked O’Rourke to explain why he had “removed, demoted or reassigned” a large number of career employees.
O’Rourke told Esty the moves were well planned and designed to improve “efficiency and effectiveness.” Esty countered she believed that “loyalty concerns” were the reason for the transfers.
CNN’s Ryan Browne contributed to this report.