The Department of Veterans affairs became the department of intrigue Wednesday as Secretary Dr. David Shulkin claimed a White House mandate to purge those plotting against him at the agency.
In phone calls to several news outlets, Shulkin said he would be staying in the job despite the uproar over his travel expenses and now had administration approval to clean house of insiders at the VA who sought to take him down.
Shulkin told Politico he was the victim of "subversion" from within, and issued a warning that "Those who crossed the line in the past are going to have to be accountable for those decisions."
He claimed he had been caught up in a "classic power struggle" against unnamed political appointees who were upset that he had proven to be "a secretary who'd been working effectively in a bipartisan way."
Shulkin's job appeared to be in jeopardy last week with the release of a damning travel expenses report from VA Inspector General Michael Missal charging that Shulkin improperly was reimbursed for the $4,132 airfare of his wife on a trip to Denmark and London last July.
The IG's report also said that Shulkin wrongly received free tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament finals from a British veterans advocate.
Shulkin initially put out a defiant statement saying he had been falsely accused, but that statement was quickly taken down and replaced with one in which he accepted responsibility.
He said he has already written a check to pay back the Treasury.
Shulkin was summoned to the White House last week to meet with Chief of Staff John Kelly following the release of the IG's report, and he met with Kelly again Tuesday.
Following the second meeting, Shulkin told CNN that he would be staying on at the VA. "I'm the secretary and we're moving forward in the way that the President wants us to," he said.
Shulkin was vague on who might be behind the plot against him but said there "have been different people with agendas different than the one that I have and that has to stop."
He said that his new chief of staff, Peter O'Rourke, a former Trump campaign aide who was head of the new VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, would have the main responsibility for weeding out the plotters.
Shulkin said O'Rourke had begun meeting with those suspected of disloyalty "individually and as a group to determine, now that there is a clear direction where we are going, where people are going to stand."
O'Rourke replaced Vivieca Wright Simpson as chief of staff to Shulkin. She announced her retirement last Friday in the wake of the IG's report.
Shulkin's apparent success in keeping the job came after several Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) representing millions of vets backed his retention Tuesday.
The VSOs said they were disappointed by the findings of the IG's report but saw Shulkin, the only holdover from the Obama administration in the Trump Cabinet, as a hedge against over reliance on the Veterans Choice Program, which allows vets to opt for private or community care.
The VSOs have consistently warned that the Trump administration's push to expand Choice would eventually lead to the gutting of the VA's health care system, the nation's largest with 170 hospitals and more than 1,200 outpatient facilities serving nine million vets annually.
"While we were disappointed to learn of the recent issue with the Secretary's travel, we believe that the current controversy surrounding the Secretary is part of a larger effort to remove him and install others who would take steps to privatize the services provided to our nation's heroes," Denise Rohan, national commander of the two-million member American Legion, said in a statement.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com