U.S.

VA Chief Says Appointees in Department Are Trying to 'Undermine' Him

Embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin is investigating appointees within his department who he says are trying to “undermine” him, and has vowed to stamp out anyone who's not on board.

Shulkin, the only Obama appointee left in the Department of Veterans Affairs, told The New York Times in an interview that political appointees were “trying to undermine the department from within.”

“If there are people here who don’t want the V.A. to succeed, I want them out,” Shulkin said.

According to the Times report, Jake Leinenkugel, the White House senior adviser on veterans affairs, sent an email in December that "listed ways to topple the leadership of his department once key legislation was passed." Among the suggestions were a continued investigation over Shulkin's business trip to remove his chief of staff, and a replacement of a "strong political candidate" for the veterans affairs top post.

Shulkin, who was previously under secretary for health at the VA under Obama, was touted by President Donald Trump as someone who could lead the overhaul of the department. "Americans can have faith he will get the job done right," Trump said during his appointment.

On Wednesday, a damning report came out regarding Shulkin’s business trip to Europe, in which the VA's Inspector General Michael J. Missal found “serious derelictions” involving the $122,000 travel bill. 

Also highlighted in the report was Shulkin’s chief of staff altering an email and giving false statements about expenses related to Shulkin's wife, and elaborate sightseeing on the official trip to Europe last summer.

While speaking on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Shulkin recognized the "optics of [the report] are not good." Lawyers for the secretary told CNN that Shulkin would comply with recommendations from the department's watchdog, and that he has repaid the U.S. Treasury for his wife's travel. It was also reported that Shulkin would conduct an investigation into whether his chief of staff's email account was hacked into.

Before the report’s release, Shulkin’s office cited “accountability and transparency” as key values under President Donald Trump’s administration. While Shulkin has said the report is inaccurate, he has downplayed any talk of resigning.

“Listen, I came here, I left a very good career in the private sector for one reason, and that’s because I believe so strongly that our veterans deserve better care," Shulkin said on Thursday. "I’m going to stay focused on that as long as I’m here to make sure that we’re doing that every day. I’m not going to be distracted by issues like that."

Following the release of Wednesday's investigation, the V.A. announced on Friday the retirement of Shulkin's Chief of Staff Vivieca Wright Simpson and that the department has opened a formal investigation "into her actions identified in the IG report." The statement reiterated that Trump has "made clear that he expects VA leaders to hold themselves and other employees accountable when they fail to live up to the high standards taxpayers and Veterans deserve."

The Veterans Affairs office had not responded to a request for comment from Newsweek at the time of publication.