Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Familiar Faces May Top VA List of Options as Surprise Pick Quits

April 26, 2018 Megan Howard

President Donald Trump may turn to a short list of department insiders, health industry leaders, and government officials in his hunt for a new Veterans Affairs secretary, after his first choice withdrew his nomination.

Lawmakers and veterans’ advocates are urging Trump to move quickly—but carefully—in filling the void left by embattled nominee Ronny Jackson’s withdrawal.

“This critical position must be filled promptly,” said Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) on Twitter. “This is a tough job and the VA needs strong leadership.”

The troubled Department of Veterans Affairs is dealing with a “historic leadership challenge,” according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and lawmakers are pushing Trump to tap a qualified leader.

After Trump’s surprise nomination of the White House physician to lead the government’s second-largest department faltered, he may be more inclined to turn to an experienced hand. Among the names being discussed by veterans’ groups and lawmakers are:

  • Current VA Deputy Secretary Thomas Bowman. Bowman is well liked by veterans’ advocates and has more than a decade of department experience. He was widely seen as an ally to former VA Secretary David Shulkin , which led to his job being threatened by White House officials in February as a part of an ongoing power struggle, according to reports. Veterans’ groups view him as a barrier to the privatization of VA health care and a familiar face they can trust, which could make for an easier confirmation process. This would be an unlikely pick considering Trump didn’t select him for acting VA secretary in March.
  • Robert Wilkie was a surprise choice for acting VA secretary after Shulkin was fired. Most of his career was spent in the Senate and at the Defense Department, where he most recently served as the undersecretary for personnel and readiness. Veterans’ advocates have criticized his lack of VA experience and have said he doesn’t understand the department’s complexities. If selected as the nominee, lawmakers would likely scrutinize his minimal experience dealing with the integrated health-care system and veterans affairs.
  • Energy Secretary Rick Perry was floated as a potential replacement for Shulkin after he had lunch at the White House in March. The former Texas governor is a former Air Force pilot. Perry said publicly last month that he wasn’t interested in the position, but it would not be the first time someone changed his mind about a Cabinet position.
  • Tony Cosgrove was offered the top VA job by former President Barack Obama in 2014 and was considered for the position in 2017 by Trump but turned it down both times, according to reports. Cosgrove previously served as chief executive of the Cleveland Clinic for 13 years and is currently an adviser to the $8 billion health-care system. If selected, he would bring private health-care management experience and a medical background to the role.

Loree Sutton is the New York City commissioner of veterans affairs. She previously worked as an army psychiatrist and served as the founding director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury. AMVETS, one of the largest veteran service organizations, has floated her name for VA secretary and said she would be “wonderful.” She would bring service members health-care experience to the role.

Jeff Miller is a former chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee who decided to leave Congress last year after serving eight terms. As chairman, he brokered a deal with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to expand health-care access for veterans following the 2014 VA wait time scandal. He would bring veterans policy expertise to the role.

Trump’s last choice to head the VA, White House physician Jackson, was a relative unknown to lawmakers and advocates with little management experience—so it is possible the president could make another surprise pick. Trump said April 26 on “Fox and Friends” that he already has someone in mind for VA secretary who has political experience.

In/Site: Senator Doug Jones (D-AL)