President Donald Trump said Tuesday that the nine opposition votes against Robert Wilkie, the newly confirmed secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, were cast by left-wing senators seeking to run against him in 2020.
"The only ones, actually, that voted against [Wilkie] were all of the people -- super-lefts -- that are running against me in two-and-a-half years," he said in an address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention in Kansas City.
Wilkie, 55, of North Carolina, was confirmed by the Senate on Monday to become the next VA secretary, succeeding the fired Dr. David Shulkin, by a vote of 86-9.
Usually, VA nominees have unanimous bipartisan support, but the vote Monday was the first time there was opposition to the nominee to head the VA since the post became a cabinet position in 1989. Eight Democrats and one Independent voted against Wilkie.
They were Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Dianne Feinstein of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Ron Wyden of Oregon. Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont also opposed the nomination.
Several could be considered 2020 candidates, but Feinstein, Markey, Merkley and Wyden would be unlikely possibilities.
Wilkie, a Republican who served in staff positions on Capitol Hill and at the White House, was aboard Air Force One with Trump for the trip to Kansas City.
"He's going to do a fantastic job," Trump said of Wilkie, an Air Force Reserve colonel who moved over to the VA from his post as undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.
"There's nothing more important to me" than reforming the VA, Trump told the audience.
He also strongly suggested that Acting VA Secretary Peter O'Rourke, who has been charged by Democrats with pushing out those at the VA considered "disloyal" to Trump, would be staying on at the department.
"I also want to thank our Acting VA Secretary Peter O'Rourke for doing such a fantastic job in the meantime, holding down the fort until Wilkie got approved," Trump said. "And Peter is going to be joining the whole team, and they are doing numbers and they are doing a job with Choice and with all of the other things that we've gotten approved."
He referred to the Veterans Choice Program, which allows veterans the option of seeking private health care. The Choice Program has been extended for one year while the VA implements the VA Mission Act to consolidate and overhaul Choice programs.
Several Democrats who voted for Wilkie urged him to consider sacking O'Rourke and other political appointees who they charged favored the "privatization" of VA health care.
"I hope Mr. Wilkie can turn the page on this chapter of uncertainty and dysfunction caused by inexperienced Trump political appointees, and I urge him to bring in an entirely new leadership team to complement existing dedicated career civil servants," Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, said in a statement.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.