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Robert Wilkie Sworn In As Secretary Of Veterans Affairs


In the Oval Office this afternoon, President Trump swore in Robert Wilkie to be the next secretary of Veterans Affairs. Wilkie's worked for Republican senators and at the Pentagon. He's taking charge of the VA after months of leadership turmoil and many high-level departures, all while the department is undertaking major reform, as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: With President Trump and a small audience at the White House looking on, Vice President Pence swore in the new VA secretary to what Trump called a tough but beautiful job.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I know that you'll work night and day to fulfill our sacred duty to protect those who protect us. Our vets are very, very lucky, and we are very lucky to have him.

LAWRENCE: Just to recap, President Trump's first VA secretary was David Shulkin, a holdover from the Obama administration. Trump praised Shulkin for an impressive number of VA bills moved through Congress. Then came a public fight between Shulkin and White House political appointees. They said Shulkin was slow on privatizing parts of VA health care. In March, the president fired Shulkin by tweet.

Trump then picked his White House physician to run the department's 350,000 staff and $200 billion budget. That sank under congressional opposition and allegations of misconduct. The president then surprised Robert Wilkie in May by nominating him in a public speech.

In the meantime, the acting VA secretary, Peter O'Rourke, began moving aside staff he said were not on board with the Trump agenda. Democrats accused O'Rourke of purging career staff for political reasons. They even claimed O'Rourke had lied to Congress about a dispute with the VA's inspector general. The Republican leadership then hurried up Wilkie's confirmation vote, and he took the oath in the Oval Office.


ROBERT WILKIE: I am humbled by the prospect of serving those who have borne the battle, those American men and women who have sacrificed so much.

LAWRENCE: Wilkie takes the helm of a VA with major reforms in motion, including a new $16 billion electronic health record system and a streamlining of the way the VA pays for vets who go see private doctors. Those reforms and others had bipartisan support in Congress, but there's already a fight over whether VA will get new money for private care or have to make cuts to fund it.

Veterans groups are waiting to see what staffing changes Wilkie might make immediately as a sign of whether the VA leadership turmoil is over. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. 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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