President Donald Trump’s choice to run the Department of Veterans Affairs, a military reservist with experience at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, faces a Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday that could center on a debate over “privatization” of care.
The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee is slated to consider Trump’s nominee, Robert Wilkie, who for a time was the acting secretary of veterans affairs while also serving as undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. That Defense Department job includes overseeing military health care.
Wilkie stepped aside from the acting secretary role at the end of last month to comply with a federal government rule prohibiting an acting Cabinet secretary from being considered for the full-time post.
“Robert is a great selection after running personnel and readiness at the Pentagon,” Steven Bucci, a former Army Special Forces officer and Pentagon official who is a visiting research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, told The Daily Signal. “He has the attitude and mindset to understand Capitol Hill.”
The VA has made some strides since being rocked by scandal over waiting lists and poor care in 2014. Last year, Trump signed legislation designed to increase accountability and make it easier to fire bad VA employees.
Earlier this year, Trump dismissed VA Secretary David Shulkin. His first choice to replace Shulkin, Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the White House physician, stepped away from the nomination after being besieged by allegations of unprofessional conduct.
Here’s what to know about Wilkie.
1. Top Priorities
Wilkie has said he wants to orient VA more toward customer service, modernize patient information with a broader push for electronic health records, and fully implement legislation Trump signed earlier this month.
The name of the new law, the MISSION Act, includes an acronym for Maintaining Internal Systems and Strengthening Integrated Outside Networks. It aims to increase veterans’ options for getting VA-funded care outside of VA facilities.
While the new law gained bipartisan support, Trump has talked about further expanding options for providing VA-funded vouchers so that veterans may go to private clinics.
The Senate unanimously confirmed Wilkie as a Defense Department undersecretary in November 2017. During his confirmation hearing, he talked about his priorities for military health.
Wilkie told the Senate Armed Services Committee that his focus was on accountability and allowing more choice for care. He said he believed the military health system was too reliant on paper records, and sought to advance the Pentagon’s use of electronic health records.
He also is an advocate for more telehealth options.
2. Family and Military Background
Wilkie serves in the Air Force Reserve, assigned to the office of the chief of staff. He previously was in the Navy Reserve with assignments at Joint Forces Intelligence Command, Naval Special Warfare Group Two, and the Office of Naval Intelligence, according to his Pentagon biography.
He received a Master of Law in international and comparative law from Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, a law degree from Loyola University School of Law in New Orleans, and a bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
Wilkie’s father is a Vietnam War combat veteran. Robert Leon Wilkie Sr., a retired Army lieutenant colonel, died last year. The elder Wilkie earned three Purple Hearts, four Bronze Stars, four Air Medals, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the senior Parachutist Badge, and the Ranger Tab, according to Military.com.
3. The Bush Years
Under President George W. Bush, Wilkie served in both the White House and at the Pentagon.
From 2005 through 2009, he was assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs, serving under both Defense Secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates.
He was also special assistant to the president for national security affairs on the National Security Council in the Bush White House, working under then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
During the Bush administration, and more recently the Trump administration, Wilkie helped shepherd some big names through the Senate confirmation process: Gates, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Adm. Mike Mullen before he became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
He also helped prepare Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker for multiple appearances before Congress in defense of Bush’s military surge in Iraq.
4. Democrats and Dirt
Democrats could hit Wilkie on the subjects of VA “privatization,” Russia, and race, according to media reports and those close to the nomination process.
The substantive contention likely will be over the issue of expanding private option care for veterans, particularly those who live in rural areas that may be far from a VA medical facility.
Critics of new private options, such as Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, call vouchers “privatization” of the VA, which they contend would undermine the department’s care for veterans.
“I’ve been very clear with President Trump about my expectations for the next VA secretary, not the least of which is an unequivocal opposition to privatizing or in any way degrading the VA system,” Murray said in a public statement.
“It’s also critical for a VA secretary to demonstrate independence and an ability to withstand any political pressure to act in a way that doesn’t serve the millions of veterans who get their care through the VA,” she said.
Republicans also expect attacks from Democrats and the media over Wilkie’s Capitol Hill experience.
During the 1990s, Wilkie, a North Carolina native, worked for Sen. Jesse Helms, the late Republican stalwart in that state, and for then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. During their careers, Helms and Lott both faced media controversy over comments on racial matters.
Wilkie also may draw fire for having delivered a speech on the military talents of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
“His old boss [Helms] did carry some baggage, so did Secretary Rumsfeld, but a different kind of baggage,” Bucci said. “You could hear from almost anyone in the military that Robert E. Lee was a strong general.”
During the Obama administration, Wilkie went to work as a senior adviser for another senator from North Carolina, Republican Thom Tillis, who also is a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee.
“I’m proud to call Robert Wilkie my friend and former senior adviser,” Tillis said in a public statement. “Robert is one of the most honorable and decent human beings I’ve ever worked with, and anyone who knows him has seen his drive to serve his country and his passion for honoring our nation’s veterans and servicemembers, qualities that will be tremendous assets at the VA.”
Wilkie previously was executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House in 1996.
In 2016, Wilkie—working for Tillis—was one of three congressional aides present at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland when Trump campaign aides reportedly wanted to scrap tough-on-Russia language from the platform. Politico reported special counsel Robert Mueller was not looking into Wilkie.
5. Didn’t See It Coming
Trump went off script in making the announcement of Wilkie’s nomination May 18 during a White House event that the acting secretary attended along with other Cabinet members.
“Acting Secretary Wilkie, who, by the way, has done an incredible job at the VA, and I’ll be informing him in a little while—he doesn’t know this yet—that we’re going to be putting his name up for nomination to be secretary of the veterans administration,” Trump said.
“Fantastic,” the president added. “I’m sorry that I ruined the surprise. I’ll see you anyway.”
6. What Veterans Groups Are Saying
Several veterans organizations have endorsed Wilkie’s nomination to lead the VA.
“We are confident that Wilkie, a veteran of both the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force, has credentials and experience to lead the second-largest government agency in the nation,” the Vietnam Veterans of America said.
The Wounded Warriors Project asserted: “In his tenure as acting secretary, Wilkie has demonstrated tremendous ability to lead and focus on the issues of highest concern to the veteran community.”
His experience is needed in the job, the Disabled American Veterans said:
With years of leadership experience in the Department of Defense, Mr. Wilkie has a deep understanding of navigating federal government policies. The acting secretary is himself a veteran, and we have no doubt he will continue to build upon the strong foundation put in place by Secretaries [Bob] McDonald and Shulkin.