Former Congressman Jeff Miller Emerges as Leading Contender for VA

In this May 29, 2014 file photo, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla. speaks Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
In this May 29, 2014 file photo, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla. speaks Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON -- Former congressman Jeff Miller, who chaired the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs before retiring from Congress last year, is considered a leading candidate to become President Trump's next nominee for VA secretary, according to people familiar with the matter.

The Florida Republican, who spent 16 years in Congress and now works in Washington as a lobbyist, met Wednesday with officials in the White House vetting office. Miller told people close to the White House that he expects to meet with Trump in coming days.

A senior administration official who confirmed Trump's interest in Miller said a decision is not expected before next week. Reached by phone Wednesday, Miller declined to comment when asked whether he had been asked about joining the administration or whether he would want the job leading the government's second-largest department.

Other candidates are still believed to be under consideration, including Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), who Trump has said would make a great governor of Florida.

After White House physician Ronny L. Jackson withdrew from consideration amid allegations of professional misconduct, Trump said that there was great interest in the VA position from others and that the candidates included "some very political people."

Trump suggested that a nominee with more political experience would have been better positioned to handle the kind of allegations Jackson faced.

Miller is one of two candidates that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) publicly suggested to Trump last week. Ryan also floated the possibility of Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), the current chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

Miller has been fiercely critical of the long wait times veterans face at VA facilities and has been an outspoken critic of its services, often highlighting dysfunctional hospital staffs, the silencing of whistleblowers and inspector-general reports on topics including dirty hospitals and botched surgeries.

While in Congress, he pushed to expand the Veterans Choice Program, which allows veterans to seek medical care at taxpayer expense from providers outside VA's network. Trump also favors expanding the program, which was a point of contention with the last VA secretary, David Shulkin, whom Trump fired in late March.

A top VA official said he hopes the administration will "take its time in choosing the next candidate," asking not to be named, because he was not authorized to speak about the issue. "For the sake of the vets," the official said, "we all need to get this right."

One person close to the White House and familiar with the selection process said Miller has "never clicked" with Trump but is interested in the VA job nonetheless. Miller was not interviewed for the VA job before Trump took office, despite the fact he and Trump spent a lot of time together during the transition, the person said.

This person described any meeting between Trump and Miller as a "pulse check," adding, "Trump is Trump, and he's going to do what he wants to do."

Miller, however, has the respect of key people in the president's orbit because of his work with Trump on veterans issues during the campaign, the person said.

After Jackson's exit, some veterans groups were strongly backing VA Deputy Secretary Thomas G. Bowman, who was appointed by Trump and confirmed by the Senate in August.

As recently as last month, however, Bowman's job was said to be in jeopardy. He has been at odds with the administration over its plan to expand health-care access for veterans through private providers.

Top VA officials say that while veterans groups have a lot of faith in Bowman, the current leadership has sidelined him, leaving him out of meetings and not seeking his input on key decisions.

Another name floated by veterans groups is the agency's acting head, Robert Wilkie, who told employees recently that he wants to refocus an organization beset by internal division. During a public event at the White House last week, Trump said Wilkie "is doing a great job over at the VA."

Wilkie has been walking the halls of VA's Washington headquarters, holding meetings with mall groups of employees and inquiring about their duties, said a senior VA official who was not authorized to speak with the media and commented on the condition of anonymity.

Bob Wallace, executive director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, called VA "a national treasure" and said whoever is selected to lead the department must be a proven and effective leader with management experience.

Dan Caldwell, a spokesman for Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative group with considerable influence in the Trump administration, said its membership thinks highly of Miller.

"He did very fine work as chairman," said Caldwell, whose group has been pushing for veterans to be able to receive more private care at taxpayer expense. "We know his approach to the issue would be thoughtful, and he didn't rush into it before when the program started."

The Washington Post's Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.

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