2 Days After Riots, VA's Wilkie Is Last Cabinet Secretary to Respond to Capitol Siege

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, Sunday, April 5, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie issued a statement Friday morning addressing the invasion of the U.S. Capitol, two days after a mob breached the building and two military veterans were killed, including a U.S. Capitol Police officer bludgeoned in the assault, according to law enforcement officials who spoke to The Associated Press.

As of Thursday evening, all U.S. Cabinet secretaries except Wilkie had issued strongly worded statements denouncing the violence, while two had resigned.

The VA press team did not respond to a request for comment Thursday from reporters. Wilkie finally released a relatively muted statement via Twitter on Friday morning: "Our veterans fought to defend the freedoms that were attacked this week. The assault on the Capitol is an affront to all who have worn the uniform," wrote Wilkie, a former member of the Navy Reserve and colonel in the Air Force Reserve.

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The statement followed the resignations of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in protest over the events and the role President Trump played in inciting the violence.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf issued a statement Thursday morning condemning the violence -- prompting the Trump administration to withdraw Wolf's nomination as permanent secretary 90 minutes later.

And in a statement Thursday afternoon, Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller called the events "reprehensible and contrary to the tenets of the United States Constitution."

"Our Republic may have been disrupted yesterday, but the resolve of our legislators to conduct the people's business did not waver. Due to their efforts, supported by local and federal law enforcement and the National Guard, the attempts of those who tried to stop our government from functioning failed," Miller wrote.

"I strongly condemn these acts of violence against our democracy. I, and the people I lead in the Department of Defense, continue to perform our duties in accordance with our oath of office, and will execute the time-honored peaceful transition of power to President-elect Biden on January 20," he added, hours before President Donald Trump issued a video also pledging a peaceful transition.

Responding to a question regarding the VA's delay, officials said Wilke was touring Louisiana facilities ravaged by hurricanes late last year.

They added that he has no intention of resigning.

"The Secretary has led VA to achieve landmark improvements in Veterans' trust, quality of care and employee satisfaction. He will continue to lead the department, including its historic response to the COVID-19 pandemic," VA Press Secretary Christina Noel said Friday.

Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., issued a sharp rebuke to Wilkie over his statement regarding a situation in which two Air Force veterans died -- one a protester shot while climbing through a broken window to enter the U.S. Capitol; the other, a U.S. Capitol Police officer who died from injuries sustained when rioters bludgeoned him with a fire extinguisher -- saying he should resign or be fired.

The calls echoed those late last month from lawmakers and veterans service organizations over Wilkie's handling of a sexual assault investigation at a Washington, D.C., VA hospital.

"Wednesday's insurrection at the U.S. Capitol wasn’t just an affront to our veterans and those who’ve worn the uniform, it was an attack on our democracy. In the days that followed the assault on the U.S. Capitol, you failed to join those urging that the 25th Amendment be invoked to remove a president that has shown himself to be unfit for office, instead taking to social media to issue a measly two sentence statement that remained silent on the President's seditious actions,” Takano said. “There is only one honorable option left for you to ensure we preserve the freedom and liberty millions of service members have fought and died for-- resign immediately."

Others agreed.

"This pathetic statement is weak, notably late and shows a loyalty not to veterans -- but to Trump," said Paul Rieckoff, host of the Angry Americans podcast, who founded the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Rieckoff called Wilkie's reaction "not at all surprising" for a man who "supported the Sons of Confederate Veterans and defended the display of Nazi swastikas on VA property."

"The only statement veterans want to see now from Wilkie is his resignation. Or one from the White House that says he's been fired," he added.

Last month, the nation's top veterans organizations wrote Trump asking for Wilkie to be fired for his actions following the alleged assault at the Washington, D.C., medical center.

The VA Office of Inspector General found that Wilkie had questioned the integrity of a Navy Reserve lieutenant commander who reported the assault, casting aspersions on her and working to undermine her credibility.

The investigation did not substantiate reports that Wilkie actively sought information to discredit the veteran or ordered VA employees to look into her background.

Groups calling for his resignation at the time included the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, AMVETS, Vietnam Veterans of America, and Paralyzed Veterans of America.

On Friday, an American Legion spokesman said his group agreed with Wilkie's statement.

"We wholeheartedly agree with the Secretary that the assault on the Capitol is an affront to all who have worn the uniform," American Legion spokesman John Raughter said.

The conservative Concerned Veterans for America, which traditionally has supported the Trump administration's reform efforts at the VA, criticized Wilkie's leadership in the Washington, D.C., sexual assault case but did not comment on Wilkie's response to the Capitol violence,

CVA Executive Director Nate Anderson issued a statement Thursday on the violence at the Capitol, saying that the events did "not reflect the America I fought and sacrificed for."

"As we reflect in the wake of these events, we must resist the dangerous tribalism that has led to this moment, and instead remain optimistic in our future. This country, and the values it stands for, will endure," Anderson said.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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