Defense

Trump VA secretary acknowledges bad ‘optics’ of European trip

Greg Nash

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin on Thursday said he “accept[s] responsibility” for the bad “optics” of a trip to Europe after a scathing inspector general report that alleged an aide doctored an email to gain approval to use taxpayer dollars to pay for Shulkin’s wife’s travel.

In testimony before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Shulkin defended the necessity of the trip, saying it was for a 43-year-old conference with the United States’s closest allies that that year focused on veterans’ mental health.

“I do recognize the optics of this are not good,” Shulkin said. “I do accept responsibility for that, but I do believe it’s important the United States continues its work with its allied countries.”

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The explanation irked committee member Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), who on Wednesday called for Shulkin’s resignation.

“It’s not the optics that are not good,” Coffman replied. “It’s the facts that are not good.”

In a scathing report released Wednesday about a trip Shulkin took to Europe last year, the VA inspector general said Shulkin’s chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, changed an email to make it appear Shulkin was going to be honored at a special dinner during the trip, thus necessitating his wife’s travel.

The report also knocked Shulkin for attending a Wimbledon tennis match with tickets given to him by Victoria Gosling, an adviser for the Invictus Games. Shulkin had described her as a personal friend, but the inspector general said they only met three times before in official settings.

At Thursday’s hearing, which had been scheduled before the report was released to discuss the department’s fiscal year 2019 budget request, Shulkin opened by saying he “regrets decisions” that have taken the focus off that and other veterans’ issues. He reiterated that he’s repaid the Treasury Department for his wife’s travel.

Still, with committee Chairman Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) urging members to stay on topic at the top of the hearing, questioning of Shulkin was largely focused on the budget.

Both Roe and ranking member Tim Walz (D-Minn.) said in their opening statements that they believe Shulkin’s intentions to help veterans are pure.

“With that said, as public officials, we’re all expected to be held to a higher standard and be good stewards of tax dollars,” Roe added. “I encourage you to take any steps necessary to address the findings of this report and make any changes necessary.”

Roe also said he’s asked the inspector general for more documentation for further review.

Walz added that it was “a little unusual” that Shulkin had just three and a half days to respond to the report before it was released to the public.

In an interview with Politico on Wednesday night, Shulkin suggested Wright Simpson’s email had been hacked, saying she showed him evidence someone else was sending emails in her name.

Walz said in his opening statement that the committee is prepared to ask the Department of Justice to look into the hacking allegations if Shulkin thinks that would be appropriate.

“The allegations of a potential hacking of a VA computer system with ill-intent is a serious matter,” Walz said. “I would ask you Mr. Secretary, we’re prepared to ask the Department of Justice to look into that if you think that’s appropriate, and we will follow up to see if that’s appropriate actions to go on.” 

Tags David Shulkin David Shulkin Mike Coffman Mike Coffman Phil Roe Tim Walz Tim Walz Travel expenses United States House Committee on Veterans' Affairs

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