The Senate on Monday voted 86-9 to confirm Robert Wilkie as Veteran Affairs (VA) secretary.
Wilkie will replace Peter O'Rourke, who has been serving as the acting VA secretary. Wilkie's confirmation follows reports that VA officials under O'Rourke, who had worked on President Trump's campaign, have fired or reassigned VA employees who were perceived to be "disloyal" to Trump, the Washington Post reports.
Wilkie is an Air Force reserve officer who was serving in the Department of Defense (DOD) as the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. In that role, Wilkie was responsible for military personnel policy.
Wilkie briefly served as VA's acting secretary after Trump in a series of tweets posted in March announced that he would nominate Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, who at the time was serving as the White House's top physician, to replace former VA Secretary David Shulkin. Jackson ultimately withdrew his nomination, and Trump in May nominated Wilkie to become VA's permanent secretary.
For the past 30 years, Wilkie has worked in Washington, D.C., on national security and in the military. Wilkie began his career as a congressional aide for former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). He also worked for former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and former DOD Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Wilkie has had a "role in racially divisive political campaigns as a congressional aide and state-level political party leader." For instance, Wilkie had been a supporter and member of organizations that are devoted to honoring the Confederacy and preserving Confederate memorials. However, Wilkie has said he "stopped doing many of those things at a time when that issue become divisive," noting that before the mid-2000s, events honoring Confederate figures were "big events" that were attended and accepted by both Democratic and Republican administrations and lawmakers.
Wilkie has previously undergone vetting and has been twice been confirmed by the Senate for posts at DOD.
Senate votes to confirm Wilkie
All Senate Republicans and most of the chamber's Democrats voted in favor of Wilkie's confirmation, according to the Post. Those who voted against Wilkie's confirmation were Sens.:
- Cory Booker (D-N.J.);
- Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.);
- Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.);
- Kamala Harris (D-Calif.);
- Ed Markey (D-Mass.);
- Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.);
- Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.);
- Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.); and
- Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
Feinstein in a statement said she did not support Wilkie's confirmation because he "has defended many controversial policies and elected officials." For instance, Feinstein said Wilkie had supported discriminatory campaign tactics under Helms, defended the Confederate flag, and backed the military's ban on transgender troops.
Trump praised the vote and said he looks forward to working with Wilkie. Trump said, "I have no doubt that [VA] will continue to make strides in honoring and protecting the heroic men and women who have served our nation with distinction."
Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chair Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) called Wilkie "the real deal." Isakson said Wilkie is "eminently qualified" and will "bring stability and leadership" to VA.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said, "Wilkie, I believe, has the experience, the compassion and the drive to make sure our [VA] can efficiently and effectively serve those who have served in uniform to whom we owe a moral duty." Cornyn said Wilkie's "first-hand understanding of the mental and physical demands of military life" has properly prepared him to serve as VA secretary.
Veterans' and hospital groups also expressed their support for Wilkie.
Joe Chenelly, executive director of AMVETS, said, "Since being named acting secretary in March, … Wilkie has reached out to veteran service organizations and worked closely with the White House to learn and address the challenging issues faced by the VA." Chenelly said Wilkie's confirmation "means that the nation's 20 million veterans have regained a VA that has the consistency of leadership and vision that taking proper care of our nation's veterans requires."
Denise Rohan, the American Legion's national commander, said, "We look forward to working closely with Secretary Wilkie and his staff to ensure America's veterans receive the health care, education, and other benefits they have earned through their selfless service to our great nation."
Rick Pollack, president and CEO of the American Hospital Association, said the group is "confident [Wilkie] will be able to successfully navigate the changes the VA will make as it implements the VA Mission Act to ensure our veterans receive the high-quality care they deserve" (AP/Los Angeles Times, 7/23; Luthi, Modern Healthcare, 7/23; Rein, Washington Post, 7/23; Slack, USA Today, 7/23; Firth, MedPage Today, 7/23; Feinstein release, 7/23; AMVETS release, 7/23; Kesling, Wall Street Journal, 6/27).
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