By Justin Sink - 05/21/14 11:34 AM EDT
President Obama vowed he would punish any misconduct at the Department of Veterans Affairs amid allegations that dozens of veterans died because of mismanagement at medical facilities across the country.
"If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it," Obama said during a press conference Wednesday morning. The president met earlier in the day with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and Rob Nabors, a White House deputy chief of staff tasked with leading an internal investigation into the issue.
"We have to let the investigators do their job, and get to the bottom of what happened. Our veterans deserve to know the facts," Obama said.
"Anyone found to have manipulated or falsified records at VA facilities has to be held accountable," he added.
Obama acknowledged that "people are angry and want swift reckoning," but largely defended the embattled Shinseki, whom Obama said had put his "heart and soul" into helping veterans.
The president repeatedly warned, however, that he was "going to make sure there is accountability through the system."
"We are going to fix whatever is wrong, and so long as I have the privilege of serving as commander in chief, I'm going to keep on fighting to deliver the care and the benefits and the opportunities that you and your families deserve, now and for decades to come," Obama said.
The president's statement was the first time Obama has publicly addressed the VA scandal since April 28, when he fielded a question during his trip to Asia about allegations that dozens of patients had died because of mismanagement at the Phoenix medical center.
At his press conference, Obama said Congress had an "important oversight role to play" and that he welcomed them as a "partner" as he sought to address issues with the VA. But he also asked lawmakers not to politicize the scandal.
"It is important that our veterans don't become another political football, especially when so many of them are receiving care right now," Obama said. "This is an area where Democrats and Republicans should always be working together."
Republican lawmakers were largely critical of Obama in statements issued after his press conference, knocking the president for waiting so long to act.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called Obama's remarks "wholly insufficient in addressing the fundamental, systemic problems plaguing our veterans’ healthcare system."
"We need answers, leadership and accountability, none of which we’ve seen from the Obama administration to date," McCain said.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the president's remarks came "belatedly" and urged the president to endorse legislation the House is expected to vote on later Wednesday that would make it easier for the administration to fire and discipline top officials within the VA.
"I urge the president to call on his party’s leaders in the Senate to act on this bill immediately," Boehner said. "The president has made a lot of promises to our veterans. It’s time to keep them.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called for an independent investigation into the brewing scandal.
"Our veterans have had enough. They deserve results. And we all deserve more from our president," Priebus said. "It’s time for an independent investigation.”
Democrats have begun to voice criticism as well. During a meeting Tuesday on Capitol Hill, House Democrats told White House chief of staff Denis McDonough they were alarmed by the allegations.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), an Iraq War veteran, told The Washington Post she believed the situation could use Obama's "personal attention at this point."
McDonough is slated to meet with Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) later Wednesday.
Updated at 11:59 a.m.