Donald Trump is under pressure to keep Obama's VA secretary
WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump has come under intense pressure from powerful veterans organizations to keep current Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald in the job amid increasing opposition to the leading candidates to replace him in the new administration.
Trump was harshly critical of VA on the campaign trail calling it "the most corrupt agency" in the country and charging that some veterans are "being treated worse than illegal immigrants."
Keeping McDonald, 63, would run counter to Trump's assertion he would upend the status quo to provide better care for veterans.
But several powerful veterans groups are supportive of McDonald, a registered Republican, and argue he has made improvements at the agency since the retired chief executive of Procter & Gamble was chosen by President Barack Obama 30 months ago to lead VA after a scandal over patient care.
On Friday, leaders of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled Veterans of America, Paralyzed Veterans of America Vietnam Veterans of America and American Veterans (AMVETS) told top transition officials they could not support the two candidates now on the short list to lead the agency: Pete Hegseth, former chief executive of Concerned Veterans for America (CVA), a group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, and former Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass.
Both Hegseth and Brown have said they would make it easier to fire incompetent or corrupt employees and press to significantly increase the use of private doctors, a change many advocates condemn as a first step forward privatizing the federal safety net for veterans.
"We all made it clear that we need someone like Bob, who knows how to run a very large organization and is committed to changing the culture," said Rick Weidman, executive director for policy and government affairs at Vietnam Veterans of America.
"He hasn't had a chance to make his mark," Weidman said of McDonald. "None of the other people being mentioned are viable."
The traditional veterans groups, which represent hundreds of thousands of former service members, have long held clout in Washington. Whether they can sway Trump, though, will test whether the power center for veterans has shifted, from old-line organizations to new, smaller groups like CVA that have criticized VA's failings with a harsher voice.
It was unclear Sunday whether Trump had scheduled a meeting with McDonald. Transition officials did not return requests for comment. McDonald spokesperson Victoria Dillon also declined comment.
McDonald told the Military Times on Friday that he does not know if he is in serious contention to stay on.
"I have not been approached, and I'm making plans according to that," he said. "But service is important."
McDonald has told VA officials and leaders of veterans groups he would continue in the Trump administration if given the opportunity.
"He told me he would like to finish what he started," Weidman said.
McDonald, confirmed in July 2014, is a West Point graduate and Army veteran who came out of retirement to lead VA after Secretary Eric Shinseki was forced out following a scandal over falsified wait times for patent care.
Before joining the Obama administration, McDonald was an active Republican donor, giving $23,500 to Republican political action committees in the 2012 campaign cycle and another $12,000 to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, according to Opensecrets.org.
He is credited with making VA more customer-friendly, bringing health and benefit records online and reducing the long wait lists for medical appointments.
Several lawmakers, including Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., have publicly urged Trump to keep McDonald.
"This is being seen by the [Veteran Service Organizations] that Trump is serious about getting VA right," said Louis Celli, director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation for the American Legion.
But critics, chief among them CVA, charge that McDonald has been too slow to address the agency's long backlog in appeals of disability benefits and to roll out a new program that allows veterans to see outside doctors, with restrictions. They also say he has failed to discipline or fire poor-performing employees enough.
"Many of the problems that Secretary McDonald was brought in to fix have either remained or gotten worse - especially in regards to wait times at medical centers, which have actually increased during his two years at VA," Dan Caldwell, vice-president of Policy and Communications for CVA, said in an email. "McDonald has spent his time at the VA misleading the American public while denigrating proponents of real VA reform."
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a relatively new group that represents younger veterans, also has criticized McDonald for not addressing many issues facing VA.
CVA has not formally endorsed a candidate for secretary. But the group has close ties to Hegseth, an Iraq war veteran, author and now a Fox News contributor whose views seem to align closely with Trump's pledge to dismantle what he believes doesn't work at VA.
Brown is a retired colonel in the National Guard, but he was never called to active duty, which could be a strike against him. Another candidate is House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Va., a McDonald critic. Miller has not met with Trump, however.