Embattled VA secretary meets with White House chief of staff

Posted at 1:58 PM, Feb 16, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-16 14:00:31-05

Embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin met Thursday with White House chief of staff John Kelly amid scrutiny of Shulkin’s travel practices during a 2017 European trip, according to a White House official familiar with the situation who said Friday that Shulkin was not fired.

The chief of staff for Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin altered an email and made false statements to a department ethics official that led to taxpayers covering expenses for Shulkin’s wife on an official trip to Europe last summer.

Shulkin, who also testified on Capitol Hill on Thursday, has acknowledged that the “optics of this are not good” but maintains that he did nothing improper. He did say he regrets distracting from his agency’s mission.

Trump is upset with Shulkin, the official said. But the President has previously highly regarded Shulkin, publicly praising his secretary’s efforts to turn around the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs.

Details of the meeting and Trump’s frustration were first reported by The Washington Post.

An investigation by VA Inspector General Michael Missal found “serious derelictions” by Shulkin and members of his staff during a July 2017 trip to England and Denmark, including that Shulkin’s chief of staff altered an email and made false statements that led the department to pay more thadn $4,000 for Shulkin’s wife, Merle Bari, to travel to Europe with her husband.

The report also found that Shulkin improperly accepted tickets to a Wimbledon tennis match and criticized the trip’s heavy focus on sight-seeing. Details of the trip were first reported by The Washington Post.

Some in the White House felt as though Shulkin hadn’t given them a realistic view of the report, the official said.

Shulkin has said he will comply with all the department watchdog’s recommendations, and his lawyers told CNN that he has repaid the US Treasury for his wife’s travel. His chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, has also denied doctoring official emails and Shulkin has called for an investigation into whether her email account had been hacked or if someone other than her was sending emails from her account.

On Thursday, Democratic Rep. Tim Walz, the top Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate that claim.

Shulkin told Politico on Wednesday that he and the President spoke about the findings of the VA Inspector General report last week when he received the draft, and he said that the President had been supportive of him remaining in the job.

Overhauling VA

The uncertainty surrounding Shulkin’s standing comes as the VA is focused on overhauling its troubled health care system. The department is currently spending billions of dollars for America’s veterans to be treated outside the VA’s healthcare system.

Partisan political appointees within the Trump administration have been working for months to subvert Shulkin, Republican and Democratic congressional sources tell CNN.

Much of Shulkin’s friction with the White House, these sources say, is over the fact that Shulkin opposes privatizing veterans health care, something that has historically been opposed by veterans’ groups.

The VA runs its own health care system, serving roughly 9 million veterans. But some conservatives favor moving away from that system of hospitals and clinics across the country and instead turn over sweeping parts of veterans health care to private doctors.

During his confirmation hearing, Shulkin said VA “will not be privatized under my watch.”

Travel practices

Shulkin is not the first current or former Trump Cabinet official to be dogged for their travel practices. He is one of five top Trump officials to face investigation for his travel practices, including former HHS secretary Tom Price, who resigned last year amid scrutiny of his use of chartered flights for official business.

Criticism of Shulkin during a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on Thursday was muted, though both Chairman Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, and Walz, the panel’s top Democrat, expressed concern about the report’s findings.

One lawmaker, Rep. Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican, has called on Shulkin to resign. After Shulkin said Thursday that the “optics” of his European trip were “not good,” Coffman replied: “It’s not the optics that are not good. It’s the facts that are not good.”