WASHINGTON — The White House is hitting back at former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin for claiming that he was fired from his job and that he was only informed about it shortly before President Donald Trump tweeted about his replacement.
The Trump administration says he left his job willingly amid a bruising ethics scandal and mounting rebellion within the agency. The semantics of whether Shulkin resigned or was fired could be relevant to Trump's ability to name an acting VA secretary to temporarily fill his place.
On Sunday, chagrined by Shulkin's public statements blaming his ouster on unfair "political forces" in the Trump administration, the White House circulated a "talking points" memo to some veterans groups in a bid to discredit him. The three-page memo, obtained by The Associated Press, points out seven "lies" that it said Shulkin had spread. They include statements in which he minimizes a VA watchdog report in February that concluded he violated ethics rules by accepting free Wimbledon tennis tickets. The VA inspector general has previously found Shulkin made misleading statements about the trip to investigators and the news media.
In television interviews earlier Sunday, Shulkin said he had not submitted a resignation letter, or planned to, and was only told of Trump's decision to replace him with White House doctor Ronny Jackson shortly before the Twitter announcement last Wednesday. He said he had spoken to Trump by phone earlier that day about VA improvements, with no mention of his job status, and was scheduled to meet with the president the next morning.
"I came to run the Department of Veterans Affairs because I'm committed to veterans," Shulkin said. "And I would not resign because I'm committed to making sure this job was seen through to the very end."
Last week, Trump named Defense Department official Robert Wilkie to the acting position, bypassing Shulkin's deputy secretary, Tom Bowman. Bowman has come under criticism for being too moderate to push Trump's agenda.
Under federal law, a president has wide authority to temporarily fill a federal agency job if someone "dies, resigns, or is otherwise unable to perform the functions and duties of the office." There is no mention of a president having that authority if the person is fired. Still, it's unclear if courts would seek to draw a legal distinction between a firing and a forced resignation, if that is indeed what happened to Shulkin.
The day after announcing he was replacing Shulkin, Trump told a rally in Richfield, Ohio, that he had been dissatisfied with efforts to improve the VA. Shulkin had enjoyed Trump's support for much of his first year in the administration, but that eroded in February after mounting ethics questions and political infighting at the VA.
Wilkie, now listed on the VA website as acting secretary, took over Shulkin's duties last week.
The back and forth over the circumstances behind Shulkin's departure — and what it could mean for Wilkie's status — comes as the nomination of Jackson is drawing concern among lawmakers and veterans groups. They worry the Navy rear admiral and lifelong physician lacks the experience to manage an enormous agency paralyzed over Trump's push to expand private care.
Trump's new Cabinet nominees also are beginning to pile up in the Senate, likely leading to weeks of confirmation battles and other delays in the run-up to congressional midterm elections in November. That could mean an extended reign for an acting VA secretary.
On Sunday, Shulkin, who had previously recommended Jackson to be VA undersecretary of health, repeatedly demurred when asked to fully endorse Jackson for the job of VA secretary. He noted the complexity of running the government's second-largest department.
"This is a very tough job," Shulkin said. "I'm not sure that anybody realizes how complex this is. ... I think he is going to need to have a good team around him, like everybody will, to be successful."
Shulkin's dismissal comes amid a broader shakeup of top Trump administration officials and accusations of excessive spending by Cabinet officials. Also currently under fire are Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson.
Shulkin had agreed to reimburse the government more than $4,000 after the VA's internal watchdog concluded last month that he had improperly accepted Wimbledon tennis tickets and that his then-chief of staff had doctored emails to justify his wife traveling to Europe with him at taxpayer expense. Shulkin also blamed internal drama at the agency on a half-dozen or so rebellious political appointees, insisting he had White House backing to fire them.
But the continuing VA infighting and a fresh raft of watchdog reports documenting leadership failures and spending waste — as well as fresh allegations that Shulkin had used a member of his security detail to run personal errands — proved too much of a distraction.
Shulkin spoke on CNN's "State of the Union" and NBC's "Meet the Press.
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed from Palm Beach, Florida.