SURROUNDED BY VULTURES

Trump’s VA Consumed by Infighting, Backstabbing, and Talk of a Leadership Overhaul

Secretary David Shulkin’s days appear numbered. His allies fear what comes next.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

Sources close to Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and those in the broader veterans affairs community believe that his days are coming to an end atop the agency.

There is no clear date of departure and, in recent days, Shulkin has shown signs he’s intent on fighting for his job—a bit of vigor that wasn’t readily apparent as recently as late last week. But a series of cascading controversies has weakened his standing. And in recent weeks, Shulkin’s allies have grown convinced that a group of adversaries inside the VA bureaucracy have effectively laid the predicate for his removal, and that it will come soon.

“Trump liked him,” is how one source familiar with the situation described it, “and the rest of them hated him.”

Though he is an Obama-era holdover, Shulkin, for reasons that have befuddled some inside the administration, has enjoyed a strong relationship with the president. When he was picked to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, it caught him and others by surprise. But the choice was cheered on the Hill and the Senate confirmed him unanimously.

Inside his own agency is where the problems arose. Top political appointees have chafed at Shulkin for slow walking—if not actively thwarting—dramatic overhauls of the VA, including his delay of a contract for a new electronic health records database and his reluctance to heed calls for more privatization of veterans’ care. Shulkin has embraced funding for private care options for veterans receiving treatment. But according to sources inside the department and on Capital Hill, he has encouraged Trump to reject more dramatic reforms.

That has resulted in some strange defenders of an embattled Trump cabinet secretary. Groups such as VoteVets, a progressive political outfit focused on veterans’ issues, has warned that his ouster could be catastrophic for liberals hoping to prevent market-oriented reforms at the agency. And they recently filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the department seeking records as to whether senior VA officials were trying to coordinate his ouster by feeding reports of his mismanagement to the agency’s inspector general’s office.

“Their goal is to have somebody in place who, a couple days after they’re are confirmed, will go about bulldozing VA facilities,” Will Fischer, the director of government relations at VoteVets, told The Daily Beast.

Those critical of the secretary say that privatization is a hyperbolic strawman and that Shulkin’s problems—including the misappropriation of taxpayer funds for a trip to Europe for he and his wife—are of his own making. Shulkin is poised to be hit with another critical report—this time documenting the misuse of his security detail for non-official tasks—in the near future, as The Daily Beast reported late last week.

Either way, the tensions within the VA that had once been ever-so-slightly below the surface have begun, increasingly, to burst into public view in truly remarkable ways. In February, The New York Times reported that Jake Leinenkugel, a Wisconsin brewer tapped last year for a senior VA advisory post at the White House, had pressed for Shulkin’s removal in the wake of the VA inspector general report on the Europe trip.

Shulkin, three sources with knowledge of the situation tell The Daily Beast, has responded with his own effort to remove Leinenkugel and other perceived enemies in the administration. Shulkin insists that he has received the go-ahead from the West Wing to oust those officials. But two sources familiar with Shulkin’s proposed “purge” said the White House has denied his requests to remove Leinenkugel and other officials on multiple occasions, most recently this week.

The White House did not return a request for comment. A spokesperson for the VA referred The Daily Beast to comments the secretary made Wednesday in which he claimed that his "singular focus" was moving the agency forward.

Shulkin’s failure to rid the administration of perceived adversaries was interpreted internally as a sign of diminished political standing.

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Even so, he has continued to operate as if the axe wasn’t falling. Shulkin was spotted on Capitol Hill this week conducting meetings with lawmakers and held a press conference on Wednesday during which he announced a major overhaul of VA hospitals nationwide. Shulkin gave an interview to the Times this week, during which he insisted that his agency “will not be distracted as we have in the last couple weeks,” and he told reporters that he spoke with President Trump on Tuesday night to discuss his plans for the restructuring of the VA. On Monday, Shulkin and his top aide met with White House chief of staff John Kelly.

The Kelly meeting focused primarily on major VA policy items, but appears not to have secured Shulkin’s position atop the department. As of Wednesday afternoon, word of his imminent departure continued to swirl.

Working against Shulkin has been the fact that some of the people who President Trump speaks to regularly are vocal critics of the secretary who hold diametrically opposition positions on veterans’ care. One of those people is Ike Perlmutter, the Israeli-American chairman of Marvel Entertainment.

Perlmutter was “very, very involved” in advising the president on veterans’ issues during the campaign and transition period, Trump said in early 2017. And one source with knowledge of their discussions said Perlmutter was instrumental in securing the VA secretary nomination for Shulkin instead of other, more conservative contenders. But Perlmutter has soured on Shulkin of late, the source said, and raised controversies surrounding the VA chief in recent conversations with Trump.

A Marvel rep did not respond to a request for Perlmutter’s comment.

The president is also being advised on the matter, directly and through TV appearances, by Fox & Friends weekend co-host Pete Hegseth, an Iraq War veteran and the former chief executive of the conservative Concerned Veterans for America. Hegseth, who was seriously considered for VA secretary during the presidential transition, favors a larger role for the private health industry in veterans’ care and has been increasingly critical of Shulkin on-air.

Two sources with knowledge of their conversations told The Daily Beast that President Trump will often call Hegseth after the Fox personality is done hosting to chat with him about the episode that had just aired. When the two talk, Hegseth will sometimes try to inject VA and veterans issues into the conversation and steer the discussion in a more policy-oriented direction. According to these sources, Trump will typically acknowledge Hegseth’s points before quickly steering the phone conversation back in the direction of what he just saw on Fox & Friends.

Hegseth did not return a request for comment. But he appears to be getting through. When the White House convened a meeting with veterans’ service organizations last week, Shulkin initially sent in a list of groups that did not include Hegseth’s old haunt, the CVA. A representative, along with staffers at three other veterans service organizations not initially slated to attend, were later invited by White House staff.

At that meeting, White House chief of staff Kelly continued to affirm that Shuklin enjoyed the confidence of the president. On top of that, Shuklin still has allies willing to scrape and claw for his political survival. As his standing inside the VA took a hit following the publication of the first IG report, those allies reached out to established veterans groups to make sure that they didn’t call for his ouster. And, they didn’t.

American Legion put out a statement saying Shulkin remained the best person to lead the agency and Veterans of Foreign Wars all but accused the secretary’s deputies of an orchestrated sabotage.

“As reported in the press, the acts of these individuals have become a cancer inside this Administration. They sow doubt, they create turmoil, and their ideological agenda clearly puts outside interests ahead of the care and well-being of millions of wounded, ill and injured veterans,” Keith Harman, the VFW’s leader said in a statement. “I now call on President Trump to clean house of these distractors.”