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Robert Wilkie, Trump's Nominee To Lead VA, Has Relatively Smooth Confirmation Hearing


Back in March, President Trump fired his first VA secretary, David Shulkin. His first nominee to fill the empty post that he'd created, White House physician Ronny Jackson, withdrew after charges of professional misconduct. Trump's next pick, Robert Wilkie, was seen as uncontroversial with decades of Washington experience. And today, Willkie had a pretty smooth confirmation hearing. That does not mean there aren't controversies at the Department of Veterans Affairs. As NPR's Quil Lawrence knows well, he covers vets and Veterans Affairs, and he was watching the hearing, and he's with us now. Hey, Quil.


KELLY: What do we need to know about Robert Wilkie?

LAWRENCE: Well, he's the son of a severely wounded Vietnam vet, and he grew up mostly in and around military bases. He's also a veteran himself. He served in the Navy, and he's currently an Air Force reservist. He also served two months as acting VA secretary this spring, so he does have a working knowledge of all these complicated VA issues. He wasn't there long enough that he couldn't still punt on a few questions and say, well, once I get - if I'm confirmed, I'll study those issues, that kind of thing.

KELLY: Any rough moments at the hearing today?

LAWRENCE: There's no indication he won't be confirmed. There was a story in The Washington Post this week bringing up some of the positions that Wilkie defended in his past when he worked for some of the most conservative Southern Senators - Jesse Helms, Trent Lott. And at the hearing today, Willkie pointed to his later work with the George W. Bush administration and said that over the years he has been background checked nine times by the FBI.


ROBERT WILKIE: The first question they ask anyone they talk to - is this person someone who discriminates against anyone on the basis of race, sexual orientation or creed? If I had been what The Washington Post implied, I don't believe I would have been able to work for Condoleezza Rice or Bob Gates or Jim Mattis.

KELLY: Quil, let me turn you to the challenge Wilkie will face at the VA should he be confirmed. His predecessor, previous VA secretary Dr. David Shulkin - he has said he was fired because he failed to further privatized the VA. And I'm wondering did that issue come up today?

LAWRENCE: Yes. And it's sort of become a ritual denunciation for VA nominees. Senator Bernie Sanders asked him about it.


BERNIE SANDERS: Do you believe in the privatization of the VA? And that's question No. 1.

WILKIE: No, sir. No, Senator, I don't.

SANDERS: OK. Will you vigorously oppose, whether it is the Koch brothers and their various organizations or the president of the United States, any effort to privatize the VA?

WILKIE: My commitment to you is that I will oppose efforts to privatize the VA.

LAWRENCE: I mean, there's some argument about what exactly privatization means. The previous secretary had already increased private care to about a third of medical appointments. That wasn't apparently enough for some political appointees in the VA who said that he was moving too slowly.

KELLY: It sounds - I mean, you could hear in those questions there, like, senators are trying to make sure that Wilkie, if confirmed, would stand up to the White House.

LAWRENCE: Yeah. Ranking member Jon Tester went as far as asking him if he thought he could hire his own staff and implying that some of these political appointees had been undermining the previous Senate-approved people at VA.


JON TESTER: Sooner or later, you're going to come to a crossroads with these folks. My only advice to you is to take the cues from the veterans and do what you think is right, even if political forces threaten your job because I want you to succeed. I really want you to succeed.

LAWRENCE: And Wilkie should get a full Senate confirmation vote soon, and the Senate likes to confirm VA secretaries unanimously to sort of underscore this tradition of bipartisanship on veterans issues.

KELLY: All right. That is NPR's Quil Lawrence. Thank you, Quil.

LAWRENCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.
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