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Trump considers ousting his VA secretary in Cabinet shuffle

Published: Tuesday, March 13, 2018 @ 3:49 PM
Updated: Tuesday, March 13, 2018 @ 3:48 PM

            FILE - In this Feb. 6, 2018, file photo, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin speaks during a House Committee on Veterans' Affairs hearing on veteran caregiver support on Capitol Hill in Washington. Shulkin is hanging onto his job by a thread. He faces an insurgency from within his department and new allegations that he had a member of his security detail go shopping with him at Home Depot and then cart the purchases into his house. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 6, 2018, file photo, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin speaks during a House Committee on Veterans' Affairs hearing on veteran caregiver support on Capitol Hill in Washington. Shulkin is hanging onto his job by a thread. He faces an insurgency from within his department and new allegations that he had a member of his security detail go shopping with him at Home Depot and then cart the purchases into his house. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

President Donald Trump is considering ousting embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, who has faced an insurgency within his department and fresh allegations that he used a member of his security detail to run personal errands.

Trump has floated the notion of moving Energy Secretary Rick Perry to the VA to right the ship, believing Shulkin has become a distraction, according to two sources familiar with White House discussions. The sources were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations.

Shulkin has faced several investigations over his travel and leadership of the department, but until now has received praise from the president for his work to turn it around. The news comes after Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Tuesday.

Trump raised the idea with Perry on Monday but did not offer the job to him, according to one White House official. Trump has been angry with Shulkin, the official said, but is known to float staffing changes without always following through.

Shulkin did not respond to requests for comment via phone and text message. He has been holding on to his job by a thread since a bruising internal report found ethics violations in connection with his trip to Europe with his wife last summer. A spokeswoman for Perry also had no comment.

The VA inspector general also is looking into a complaint by a member of Shulkin's 24-7 security detail that he was asked to accompany the secretary to a Home Depot and carry furniture items into his home, according to two people familiar with the allegation who requested anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

Within the agency, a political adviser installed by Trump has openly mused to other VA staff about ousting the former Obama administration official. And a top communications aide has taken extended leave following a secret, failed attempt to turn lawmakers against him.

"The honeymoon is ending with a crash that hurts veterans most of all," said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who has been a close observer of VA for more than a decade. "VA always has bad news, but Shulkin's ethical and leadership failures are still significant — despite any internal attacks."

Senior administration officials describe a growing frustration that Shulkin repeatedly ignores their advice, only to beg for their help when he runs into ethical trouble. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to describe sensitive internal discussions, say Shulkin has been given a final warning to end the swirl of distractions. The administration is currently seeking to push Trump's agenda of aggressively expanding the Veterans Choice program, which major veterans groups worry could be an unwanted step toward privatizing VA health care.

The issue came to the fore at a White House meeting last week, when chief of staff John Kelly told Shulkin to stop talking to the news media without clearing it first with the White House and to stay focused on fixing veterans care.

Shulkin was escorted from that meeting to the Oval Office, where Trump questioned him about his efforts to push the Choice expansion, which lawmakers are now seeking to include in a massive spending bill that must be approved by next week to avert a government shutdown.

With Shulkin present, the president telephoned conservative Pete Hegseth, a "Fox & Friends" contributor who was vetted in late 2016 for VA secretary, to get his views on how to proceed with the expansion. The scene was first reported by Axios. Hegseth, a former president of the conservative group Concerned Veterans for America, declined to comment for this article.

Dan Caldwell, executive director of CVA, lauded the White House focus on Choice amid the ongoing controversies involving Shulkin. "Despite the internal drama going on in the VA, which has been a distraction, Congress has continued to work to a solution that everyone can rally around," he said.

Shulkin is blaming the internal drama on a half-dozen or so political appointees whom he had considered firing, only to be blocked by Kelly.

"I regret anything that has distracted us from what we should be focusing on, which is serving veterans," Shulkin told the AP shortly before release of an inspector general report that faulted the VA for "failed leadership" and an unwillingness or inability of leaders to take responsibility for accounting problems at a major VA hospital that put patients at risk.

It wasn't always this way.

Early in the administration, Shulkin was often seen at Trump's side, waving to crowds at campaign-style events in Pennsylvania or addressing reporters in a doctor's lab coat as he tutored Trump on telehealth. Trump called him the "100-to-nothing man" — a reference to his unanimous Senate confirmation vote — and publicly teased that he probably would never be fired because he had successfully shepherded legislation to improve accountability at the VA and speed disability appeals.

By December, relations at the VA between Shulkin and several political appointees began to fray over philosophical differences.

In a Dec. 4 internal email obtained by the AP, Jake Leinenkugel, a senior aide installed as part of a Cabinet-wide program to monitor secretaries' loyalty, said Shulkin was becoming increasingly distrustful and regarded Camilo Sandoval, a senior adviser in VA's health arm, as a White House "spy."

The email to Sandoval alluded to White House efforts to gain more control, including ousting Shulkin's chief of staff, and said the secretary had been "put on notice to exit" once the administration gets the Choice legislation through Congress.

There were other signs.

At a Jan. 17 hearing, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., openly blamed the deadlock over Choice to Shulkin's ever-shifting positions. "I am of the opinion that our inability to reach an agreement is in significant part related to your ability to speak out of both sides of your mouth, double-talk," Moran said. A grim Shulkin denied the accusation, but the White House was later forced to clarify its position on the bill due to lawmaker confusion.

Last month, the inspector general released a blistering report finding ethical violations in Shulkin's trip last July to Denmark and England that mixed business with pleasure. The IG found that Shulkin's chief of staff Vivieca Wright Simpson had doctored emails to justify his wife accompanying him at taxpayer expense. Wright Simpson retired after the report was issued.

Seizing on the report, John Ullyot, a top communications aide, and VA spokesman Curt Cashour told the Republican staff director of the House Veterans Affairs Committee that Shulkin would be out by that weekend and asked if Republicans would push for his removal.

The staff director, John Towers, told Ullyot "no," and made clear that committee Chairman Phil Roe had expressed support for Shulkin, according to a House aide familiar with the phone conversation. That aide also requested anonymity in order to discuss a sensitive internal matter. In a statement, Cashour and Ullyot deny that account, saying the call was intended instead to warn the committee that some of Shulkin's denials of wrongdoing were unfounded.

Asked this week about Ullyot's current leave of absence, Cashour released a statement saying, "there are no personnel changes to announce at the Department of Veterans Affairs."

For now, Shulkin appears to be hanging on. At a Cabinet meeting last Thursday, Shulkin took a different seat reserved for him — next to the president.


Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire, Matthew Daly and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.


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Trump goes after Mueller – a new strategy on the Russia probe?

Published: Sunday, March 18, 2018 @ 6:49 PM

As President Donald Trump this weekend repeated some of his complaints about the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and whether it involved anyone on his campaign, Mr. Trump did something unusual – sending out a pair of his tweets which included the name of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading that investigation.

It was the first time on Twitter that the President had more directly taken aim at Mueller, a former FBI Director who was named by the Trump Justice Department in 2017 to investigate the charge of Russian meddling in last year’s elections.

Were the weekend mentions of Mueller a new game plan from the President? Or just more of him venting frustration about the Russia investigation?

1. Is Trump now going to more publicly confront Mueller? Before this weekend, President Trump had mentioned the Special Counsel’s name in a tweet just one time, back in December. But this weekend, the President did it twice. “The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime,” Mr. Trump said in a familiar refrain about the investigation. But his next tweet went further, directly accusing Mueller of putting together a biased investigation. In the process, the New York Times reported that the President shrugged off the advice of his legal team to not even mention Mueller’s name. Democrats in Congress said the Twitter volleys showed one thing – that the President is feeling pressure from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

2. Trump lawyer calls for end to Mueller probe. While the President condemned the Russia investigation, one of his lawyers, John Dowd, went a step further, saying it was time for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to bring the Mueller probe to a close. Asked about that on Fox News Sunday, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) basically told lawyer John Dowd to shut up, saying no matter what you think of the issue of collusion, Mueller’s task is to find out how Russia interfered in the 2016 elections. “To suggest that Mueller should shut down, and all he is looking at is collusion – if you have an innocent client, Mr. Dowd, act like it,” Gowdy said bluntly. Gowdy was one of the few Republicans to address the issue on Sunday.

3. Most Republicans say little about Trump-Mueller. About 12 hours after the President’s Sunday morning tweets, one of his White House lawyers sent word that the President was not “considering or discussing the firing of Special Counsel, Robert Mueller.” But Democrats said that’s the way it looked to them, and a handful of Republicans joined in airing similar concerns. “It’s critical he be allowed to complete a thorough investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election — unimpeded,” said Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in a statement. “Members of Congress need to be vocal in support of Special Counsel Mueller finishing his investigation,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ). But there were few other Republicans making such statements.

4. Mueller remains silent on Russia investigation. While the President has expended a lot of energy in recent months raising questions about the Russia probe, Special Counsel Mueller has said nothing. He has not appeared in public to discuss the investigation. He has not released any statements on all the furor surrounding the investigation. He has not taken issue with any comments by the President. Instead, Mueller has let the guilty pleas and indictments do the talking for him, as several people who worked for the Trump Campaign have already plead guilty to lying to the FBI about their conversations related to Russia. For some Republicans, Mueller’s work has already gone on too long.

5. Few details on the firing of ex-FBI official Andrew McCabe. The weekend got off to a fast start at 10 pm on Friday night, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe. No paperwork was released, so despite a lot of press reports on what exactly happened, we haven’t seen any part of an internal investigation that’s being done on the way top FBI brass handled the Hillary Clinton email investigation, and the Trump-Russia probe. While the President celebrated the firing of McCabe – “a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI – most GOP lawmakers stayed quiet. On Sunday, Trump accused both McCabe, and former FBI Director James Comey of fabricating evidence against him. “Fake memos,” he wrote. One Republican who raised a red flag about the firing of McCabe was Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who expressed concern about a bureaucratic process involving federal workers that usually takes much longer to complete.

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Trump lashes out at Mueller, Comey, McCabe, over Russia probe

Published: Sunday, March 18, 2018 @ 4:44 AM

Continuing to attack the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections, and any links to his campaign, President Donald Trump on Sunday went on Twitter to attack the veracity of former top officials of the FBI, accusing them of lying, and making up information to use against him in the Special Counsel’s investigation.

As he attacked former FBI Director James Comey, and recently fired top FBI official Andrew McCabe, Mr. Trump appeared to be watching television on Sunday morning, citing one of his favorite Fox News programs, Fox and Friends.

“Wow, watch Comey lie under oath,” the President tweeted at one point, moving on to take more jabs at McCabe, who was fired on Friday.

“I don’t believe he made memos except to help his own agenda, probably at later date,” the President wrote. “Can we call them the fake memos?”

On Twitter in recent days, Mr. Trump has again focused his ire on the investigation being led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, once more making the argument that the FBI went easy on Hillary Clinton’s email investigation, and showed bias on the Trump-Russia probe.

“The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime,” the President tweeted, ending with a familiar line: “WITCH HUNT!”

Mueller’s probe has already netted a series of guilty pleas from people who worked for the President’s campaign, with two specifically pleading guilty to lying about contacts involving Russia.

As the President used Twitter as his bully pulpit, one of the President’s lawyers also stirred the pot by saying it was time to end the Mueller investigation, which many in Washington believe is far from being complete.

Democrats in Congress again warned the President not to try to end that probe.

“What, Mr. President, are you hiding from the American people?” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA).

“Thou doth protest too much, methinks,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI).

“This shows how scared the Trump Administration is about what Mueller will find,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY). “This investigation must continue.”

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With retirement of acting chief, NASA finds itself in leadership limbo

Published: Saturday, March 17, 2018 @ 1:00 AM

After operating for more than a year with a temporary chief, NASA faces an unprecedented leadership bind as its acting Administrator announced this week that he would retire at the end of April, with no hint that the Senate will vote by then on President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the space agency.

“It has been a long process but we are optimistic that the vote will come soon,” said Sheryl Kaufman, the Communications Director for Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK).

“We hope that happens soon,” said Rep. Bruce Babin (R-TX), as House Republicans and Vice President Mike Pence pressed the Senate for action on Bridenstine.

The problem for Bridenstine is that just one Republican has refused to support him for the job as NASA Administrator – that being Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) – and with only a bare majority, and the absence of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Bridenstine does not have the votes to win.

Since President Trump took office in January of 2017, NASA has been led by Robert Lightfoot, a well-respected NASA veteran who has drawn bipartisan praise.

But with Lightfoot announcing this week that he is retiring – effective April 30 – it’s possible that NASA could be forced to dig deeper down the depth chart for another temporary leader at the space agency.

“Robert Lightfoot has served NASA exceptionally well for nearly 30 years,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the head of the House Science Committee.

Apart from a couple of major issues, Bridenstine in 2017 did not cast votes on regular legislation in the House – while waiting for his Senate confirmation.

This year has been different – Bridenstine is voting on most legislation in the House, except for measures that deal with NASA.

“He will represent his constituents as fully as possible while awaiting the confirmation vote by the full Senate,” said his spokeswoman.

But without enough support, there’s no hint of a vote on Bridenstine in the Senate.

“The facts of this nomination have not changed,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) back in January – and two months later, that statement is still true.

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Russia investigation: Special counsel Mueller subpoenas Trump Organization

Published: Friday, March 16, 2018 @ 3:57 PM
Updated: Friday, March 16, 2018 @ 3:48 PM

Robert Mueller - Fast Facts


Special counsel Robert Mueller has subpoenaed the Trump Organization for documents as part of his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and its possible ties to President Donald Trump and his associates, according to multiple reports.

>> Read more trending news

The subpoena is the first directly connected to one of Trump’s businesses, The New York Times reported Thursday. The newspaper was the first to report on the subpoena, citing two unidentified sources briefed on the situation.

The breadth of the subpoena was not immediately clear, although some documents sought were related to Russia, the Times reported. According to the newspaper, the subpoena was served “in recent weeks.”

>> More on Robert Mueller's investigation

The Trump Organization has already provided investigators with a range of documents, most focused on the period between when Trump announced his candidacy for president, in June 2015, to his inauguration, in January 2017, CNN reported in January. Citing an unidentified source familiar with the situation, the news network reported that the recently issued subpoena was meant “to ‘clean up’ and to ensure that all related documents are handed over to the special counsel.”

In a statement released to several news outlets Thursday, Alan Futerfas, an attorney representing the Trump Organization, said reports of the subpoena were “old news.”

>> Related: Former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates to plead guilty in Mueller investigation

“Since July 2017, we have advised the public that the Trump Organization is fully cooperative with all investigations, including the special counsel, and is responding to their requests,” Futerfas said. “This is old news and our assistance and cooperation with the various investigations remains the same today.”

The decision to subpoena the Trump Organization, which is owned by the president and managed by his children, appeared to mirror the strategy employed by Mueller with the Trump campaign, The Wall Street Journal reported. The newspaper noted that the campaign “voluntarily gave documents to the special counsel for months before receiving a subpoena in October.”

>> Related: Mueller indicts 13 Russians, 3 Russian entities in election meddling probe

Mueller, who headed the FBI from 2001 to 2013, was appointed by the Justice Department in May 2017 to oversee the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. His investigation has thus far led to several indictments and a handful of guilty pleas from people connected to Trump.

Mueller indicted 13 Russians and three Russian entities last month on accusations that they interfered with American elections and political processes, starting in 2014. On Twitter, Trump claimed that information in the indictments proved his innocence on allegations of colluding with Russia to win the election.

Five people have pleaded guilty to charges levied against them in Mueller's investigation. Most recently, former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates pleaded guilty to making false statements and conspiring against the United States.

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