President Donald Trump said Thursday that he had a politically savvy candidate in mind to replace Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson as his nominee to head the VA in what was likely to be an epic and lengthy battle to gain Senate confirmation.
Trump did not reveal a name, but reports indicate he is looking at former Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican, who retired in 2016 as head of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, as a potential choice.
The Washington Examiner, citing a senior White House official, said Trump had Miller under serious consideration.
Earlier, Trump said he was focused on an individual who had the "political capabilities" to steer past the White House's own spotty vetting procedures and opposition from Democrats that doomed the nomination of Jackson, Trump's personal physician and head of the White House medical unit.
Miller made clear that he was interested in the post as VA secretary before he stepped down from the House, and he was among the initial candidates Trump interviewed for the job before he took office.
Filling the post of Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the second largest in government after the Defense Department, has proven to be the most difficult for Trump of all his Cabinet choices.
The VA position was the last to be selected when Trump took office. At his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, Trump as president-elect interviewed several potential candidates, who either turned him down or were passed over.
In the interim, veterans groups urged him to keep on the outgoing VA Secretary, Bob McDonald. Trump eventually made the surprise choice of Dr. David Shulkin, former under secretary of Veterans Affairs for Health, who became the only holdover from the Obama administration in the Trump Cabinet.
Shulkin won unanimous Senate confirmation and initially was praised by Trump for improving accountability within the VA and taking steps to reduce wait times. But the honeymoon was short-lived.
Shulkin claimed he was being undermined by Trump political appointees at the White House and within the VA over the expansion and funding of Veterans Choice Program that veterans groups feared would lead to the "privatization" of VA health care.
Shulkin agreed that veterans should be able to opt for private care when it was in their best interests, but vowed that privatization would not occur "on my watch."
Last month, Shulkin said he was fired via a tweet from Trump. The White House said he had resigned.
Trump's search for another nominee reportedly included once again running the possibility of heading the VA past Dr. Toby Cosgrove, a Vietnam veteran and former head of the prestigious Cleveland Clinic. Cosgrove was one of those interviewed before Trump picked Shulkin.
However, Trump made another surprise choice earlier this month in Jackson, who had conducted Trump's physical and gave him a glowing report on his health.
Before deciding on Jackson, Trump reportedly also had under consideration Pete Hegseth, the co-host of the weekend "Fox & Friends" show. Hegseth, an Army veteran of Iraq and unsuccessful candidate for the Senate from Minnesota, had previously headed the advocacy group Concerned Veterans For America.
CVA, which is funded by the conservative Koch brothers organization, has drawn fire from other congressionally chartered veterans groups for its consistent arguments in favor of expanding the Choice program.
Jackson withdrew his name from consideration for the nomination Thursday before his position on Choice could be explored.
The main criticism of Jackson was that he lacked the managerial experience to head a department with more than 360,000 employes, 1,200 facilities and a budget of more than $200 billion, serving more than nine million vets annually.
Jackson also fell victim to anonymous charges from current and former colleagues collected by Democrats on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that he had been drunk on the job, passed out pills without prescriptions, and presided over a hostile work environment.
In statements announcing his withdrawal Thursday, Jackson denied the allegations against him.
"Unfortunately, because of how Washington works, these false allegations have become a distraction for this president and the important issue we must be addressing -- how we give the best care to our nation's heroes," he said.
It was not immediately clear whether Jackson would return to his post at the White House or how the allegations against him would affect his military career. Prior to nominating Jackson as VA Secretary, Trump had also nominated him for promotion to two-star rank.
The White House initially said he would resume his position as head of the medical unit.
Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter and advisor, said in a Tweet that Jackson was "a man of exceptional integrity, character and intellect. We are grateful for his long and distinguished service to our Nation and look forward to continuing to see his warm smile each day at the White House!"
Trump, veterans groups and members of Congress have already made clear that the next fight over the nomination will be a proxy battle over the Choice program, which was expected to run out of funding in in early June. Bills to fund and extend the Choice program have been stalled in Congress.
At a later appearance Thursday at the White House with members of the Wounded Warriors Project, Trump cited reforms enacted under Shulkin and said "now we're going for Choice. And we're going to get Choice. And that's another one that I've wanted right from the beginning. And we'll get that done too."
"So we're going to have Choice," he said. "There's no more waiting on lines for 12 weeks, and you can't get the doctors, you can't get what you need. So we're going to have Choice."
Democrats said that Trump had only himself to blame for failing to vet Jackson properly before putting his name in nomination.
Trump "absolutely must exercise better judgment moving forward by choosing someone who is capable and committed to VA's mission," Sen Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, an Army veteran of Iraq who lost both legs in a helicopter crash, said in a statement.
Duckworth also echoed other Democrats in warning that the next nominee would face a battle over choice.
"The president must also understand that any nominee who will push VA down the dangerous path of privatization is unacceptable," she said.
However, Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the choice issue would likely be decided while acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie was on the job.
Wilkie, the Pentagon's undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness, was sent over to the VA after Shulkin's firing.
Roe said in a statement that "Trump was right to call on Congress to pass legislation to give veterans more decision-making power when it comes to their health care."
"I've met with Acting Secretary Wilkie, and I appreciate how focused VA's team is on getting this done," Roe said.
CVA , which has its partisans among the political appointees at the White House and within the VA, also appeared more focused on Wilkie and choice than on the next nominee.
CVA Executive Director Dan Caldwell said that the White House should take its time in selecting a new nominee since a "competent Acting Secretary" in Wilkie was already in place.
"With the Veterans Choice Program facing yet another budget shortfall, it is absolutely critical that Congress pass legislation in the coming weeks that fixes the VA's choice and community programs so that up to a million veterans don't lose access to critical care," Caldwell said in a statement.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.