WASHINGTON — Modest and low-key, Robert Wilkie was hastily dispatched to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs after a furious President Donald Trump fired Secretary David Shulkin amid political infighting at the department.
But what was supposed to be a temporary job could turn permanent.
Wilkie wasn't Trump's first choice to replace Shulkin; his nomination of White House doctor Ronny Jackson withered in the face of late-surfacing allegations of workplace misconduct.
All the while, Wilkie was quietly working at the VA, signing a major $10 billion deal to overhaul veterans' electronic medical records.
He was taken aback when Trump made an impromptu offer of the permanent job at a public event in mid-May.
"I do not know how long I will be privileged to serve as the acting secretary," Wilkie had disclosed in a message to VA employees, urging an improved department where people are "not talking at each other, but with each other." He privately told associates after Trump's announcement that he had been awaiting a meeting with the president before making commitments.
If confirmed, the longtime public official could end up steering some of the biggest changes to veterans' health care in decades.
A significant test comes Wednesday at his Senate hearing, where Democrats plan to question the Air Force and Navy veteran on his views on privatizing the government's second-largest department of 360,000 employees serving 9 million veterans. It's an issue that Shulkin says led to his ouster.
How he chooses to navigate a Senate in which Republicans hold a 51-49 majority could go a long way in whether he delivers on Trump's promise to steer more patients to the private sector. The reach of a newly signed law to expand private care will depend on the VA secretary, who will have wide leeway in deciding when veterans can bypass the government-run VA.
The last time the VA faced big changes involving the eligibility of health care was 1996.
"With a growing risk of funding shortages, VA has never before been more vital — or more vulnerable," said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "Mr. Wilkie will have to prove to millions of veterans nationwide that he is up to this mammoth, sacred leadership task."
Wilkie, 55, declined to respond to requests for comment on his VA nomination. Pending confirmation, he has returned to his role as Pentagon undersecretary, a post to which he was confirmed unanimously last November.
The son of an Army artillery commander, Wilkie received strong backing for the VA job from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and White House chief of staff John Kelly, a retired Marine, after Jackson was forced to withdraw his bid. Kelly and Mattis prevailed on Trump to select Wilkie as a known quantity with a record of competence and hard work. Wilkie was an assistant secretary of defense in President George W. Bush's administration under Donald Rumsfeld.
Wilkie had also worked on Capitol Hill for more than a decade, serving as counsel to conservative Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and former Sen. Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. During his time at the Pentagon, he shepherded two defense secretaries through Senate confirmation.
Former colleagues describe him as a student of history who cites as a model President Dwight Eisenhower, an unflashy but quintessential Army general "who knew how to handle dysfunctional staff," according to Bob Carey, now a director of policy for the Independence Fund, a veterans group. During his time as senior adviser to Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., from 2015 to 2017, the senator and his staff referred to him as "Forrest Gump," a likely reference to his ability to exceed expectations.
"His relationship networks in Congress are second to none," said Jordan Shaw, executive vice president of OnMessage Inc. and a former Tillis chief of staff who hired Wilkie. "He's not flashy or schmoozy, just one of the most decent human beings I've ever worked with. You can't be around him and not like him. In D.C., that's worth a lot."
Sen. Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, speaks positively about Wilkie, pledging to give his nomination speedy consideration. On Tuesday, after meeting with Wilkie, Isakson called him a "very qualified guy" and predicted that Wednesday's hearing will go well. "We'll wait and see," Isakson said.
In recent meetings, Wilkie told several veterans' groups and some lawmakers that he opposed "privatization."
His initial response helped soothe some senators, including top committee Democrat Jon Tester, whose staff compiled allegations against Jackson that led to his withdrawn nomination. Wilkie has drawn little congressional criticism so far, though Democrats say they intend to press him further on the topic after the White House recently argued that added costs of the private care program should be paid for by cutting spending elsewhere at VA.
"Right now I certainly don't have anything to cause me not to support him. He's a solid guy," Tester said late last month. Following a recent meeting with Wilkie, a spokeswoman for Tester said he was "pleased" with the nominee's responses regarding the VA's future direction.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, said she needs to be reassured that Wilkie could stand up to the White House when necessary. "It's critical for a VA secretary to demonstrate independence," she said.
Conservative veterans groups say he's up to the VA task, understanding federal bureaucracy and how to fix it.
"We're confident he's aligned with President Trump on VA's reform agenda," said Dan Caldwell, executive director of Concerned Veterans for America.