President Donald Trump has picked North Carolinian Robert Wilkie to be secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
If the Senate confirms him to the position, he would lead the second-largest agency in the U.S. government — one that has been plagued by scandal in recent years and is in the middle of a political fight over privatization.
Trump made the surprise announcement at a prison reform summit Friday morning at the White House.
Wilkie, who has been the acting secretary of the VA since March, joined several Cabinet members at the event, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner were also there.
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"I'll be informing him in a little while — he doesn’t know this yet — that we're going to be putting his name up for nomination to be Secretary of the Veterans Administration. Fantastic," Trump said. "I'm sorry I ruined the surprise."
Wilkie, 55, rose from his seat on the front row, stepped forward and shook Trump's hand. The room burst into spontaneous applause. As Wilkie stepped back, a smiling Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke stood, shook his hand and patted his shoulder. All other attendees rose to their feet and clapped.
If confirmed he would replace David Shulkin, who left the administration. Trump's first pick to replace Shulkin, his personal physician Ronny Jackson, withdrew from consideration after a slew of allegations of misconduct surfaced.
"As the President said today, Acting Secretary Robert Wilkie has been doing an incredible job at the VA. He is immensely qualified and has been very involved in working to ensure that the much-needed VA Choice legislation for our veterans becomes a reality," said Helen Aguirre Ferre, the White House director of media affairs.
A bill that has passed the House and is awaiting Senate action would expand private care options for veterans.
Wilkie, who grew up in Fayetteville, worked a senior adviser to Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican. Trump picked him to be under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, a position that required confirmation by the Senate. Wilkie was confirmed unanimously. Trump then chose him as acting VA secretary in March.
"Robert is one of the most honorable and decent human beings I’ve ever worked with, and anyone who knows him has seen his drive to serve his country and his passion for honoring our nation’s veterans and servicemembers, qualities that will be tremendous assets at the VA," Tillis said in a statement.
"Robert holds pragmatic and commonsense views on modernizing the agency and upholding its core mission of providing veterans with the best health care, resources, and support possible. He understands that while the VA Choice Program was born out of necessity, nothing beats the value of a veteran receiving world-class care from highly qualified medical professionals at the VA."
Wilkie is a reserve officer in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. His father, who died last year, retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel.
"What so great about this new role is you can't be around Robert Wilkie for more than five minutes without realizing how much he cares about veterans. I'm sure some of that comes form his family heritage. He is very passionate about the care our veterans receive," said Jordan Shaw, executive vice president of OnMessage Inc., who worked with Wilkie for about three years in Tillis' office.
"He's custom-built for this position. I think it's a huge, huge victory for veterans across the country."
Shaw said Wilkie often visited VA hospitals throughout North Carolina during his work for Tillis.
The VA has been beset by complaints of poor treatment and long waits at many facilities in recent years.
"This is one of the toughest jobs in America, put it up there with Speaker of the House, jobs that most of us would not even dream about wanting. Robert has a unique set of skills to take on this job," Shaw said, highlighting his relationships on Capitol Hill. "If you want to fix things at the VA, you're going to have to have some horsepower on the Hill; Robert has that. This is personal to him. He is not an outsider coming into a broken VA system. He has lived it."
VoteVets, a progressive veterans organization, sued the Trump administration to block Wilkie's appointment as acting secretary and said Friday he cannot be both acting secretary and the nominee. The group has expressed concern about privatization efforts by the Trump administration.
"Once again, this president just made a spur-of-the-moment decision on veterans care, without any consideration, without any thought, and clearly without the usual process, which would have caught this issue with the law," said Will Fischer, an Iraq War veteran and the group's director of government relations.
Rep. Richard Hudson, a North Carolina Republican, applauded Trump's decision to nominate his friend. Hudson represents Fort Bragg, where Wilkie grew up.
"Robert truly has a heart for veterans. That coupled with his deep understanding of what management and policy changes need to be made to clean up the VA is what we need to keep our promises to veterans," Hudson said in a statement.
Privatization could become the major issue in Wilkie's Senate confirmation process.
"My priority remains ensuring that the VA is providing our veterans with the highest quality of care, working towards eliminating the unconscionable backlog for veterans’ claims, and providing robust resources for housing and job training. Our next VA secretary must be able to put veterans before political interests, and that includes opposing the privatization of the VA. We need a fighter for veterans, not a figurehead focused on corporate profits," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat and a member of the Veterans Affairs committee, which will be the first step in Wilkie's confirmation.
Wilkie spoke Thursday at the daily White House press briefing. Trump donated his quarterly salary to the VA, and Wilkie accepted the check and thanked Trump.
"I am deeply grateful to President Trump for providing me the opportunity to serve America's veterans and for his generosity in supporting them."
Wilkie worked as vice president for strategic initiatives at CH2M Hill, an engineering consulting firm in Washington, from 2010 to 2015. He was the assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs during President George W. Bush’s second term.
He received the Defense Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest civilian award in the department.
Wilkie is a Capitol Hill veteran, having worked for then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott from 1997 to 2003. He was executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party before going to work for Lott. Wilkie also served as an aide to Jesse Helms, the late North Carolina senator, and former U.S. Rep. David Funderburk. Wilkie unsuccessfully ran for the Republican nomination in the 7th Congressional District in 1996.
Carter Wrenn, who worked for Helms, said he remembered Wilkie as a young legislative aide.
"I liked him and he worked hard," Wrenn said. "If he’s going to straighten out the VA, he’s got his hands full."
Wilkie graduated from Wake Forest University and earned law degrees from Loyola University in New Orleans and Georgetown University. He also holds a master’s degree from the United States Army War College.