Trump VA pick defended controversial remarks as congressional aide: report
Controversial details about President Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) have emerged in a Washington Post report on the eve of his confirmation hearing, including that as a congressional aide he defended polarizing views on homosexuals.
The Post reported that Robert Wilkie, who is set to appear for a hearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday, has throughout his career worked for polarizing lawmakers and officials with a history of defending their divisive views.
Wilkie, 55, ran military personnel policy at the Pentagon for the Trump administration before serving as acting VA secretary. While at the Defense Department he helped Defense Secretary James Mattis navigate Trump’s transgender ban, first announced last July, taking a leading effort to justify the policy.
He stepped down from acting VA secretary after being nominated for secretary. The Washington insider has years of administrative experience working on Capitol Hill as well as in the Pentagon for two presidents.
Wilkie first worked as an aide for former Sen. Jesse Helms, who was known for denouncing Martin Luther King Jr. and his disparaging remarks towards homosexuals.
At divisive moments Wilkie would defend Helms, including in 1993, when Democrat Carol Moseley Braun – the only African American in the Senate – successfully blocked Helms’s amendment to renew the patent on the insignia used by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The logo featured the Confederate flag.
In statements made to The Washington Post, Wilkie called Moseley Braun’s effort “an attempt in the name of political correctness to erase entire blocks of our history. … The question is whether we’re going to wipe out the history of millions of Americans who trace their heritage to the losing side.”
And while executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party in the mid-1990s – while Helms was in a reelection campaign against Democrat Harvey Gantt – the Post noted that Wilkie defended a campaign flier the party issued showing Gantt, who is black, alongside the state’s three congressional Democrats, two of which also were black. Included on the mailer was Eva Clayton, the first African American woman to represent North Carolina in Congress.
“Eva’s bad enough. Do you want Harvey too?” the fliers reads.
Democrats argued the flier was an attempt to persuade white voters not to send another black representative to Congress.
Wilkie also accused Gantt of having “openly courted money from the homosexual community,” according to a 1996 transcript from PBS’s “News Hour with Jim Lehrer.”
Later, while serving as top aide to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Wilkie defended Lott’s praise for former Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 1948 presidential campaign, which advocated for segregation. Lott lost his leadership in 2003 after he made the comments.
Wilkie said Lott was trying to be “gracious to an American icon.”
Wilkie, whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy, also as recently as 2005 attended annual memorial ceremonies in Washington held by descendants of Confederate veterans, to coincide with the birthday of Jefferson Davis.
He also was a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group that defends public displays of the Confederate symbols.
A Pentagon spokeswoman told The Post that Wilkie is no longer a member of the ground and does not attend the ceremonies.
Wilkie said in a statement to The Post that the events were once meant to memorialize soldiers but are now “part of the politics that divide us.”
“Today, there would be much more consideration taken into attending this type of memorial event. While I honor the soldiers in my family, and I am a student of history, the past is the past and I do not live in the past.”
Wilkie’s past comments have raised concerns in the veteran community.
Paul Rieckhoff, the founder of advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told The Post Wilkie must show that “he is loyal to veterans and not a partisan agenda.”
But retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, – a former staff director for Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee – said he’s known Wilkie for more than 30 years and never saw “any of the leanings of Jesse Helms when it comes to the issues people were concerned about.”
Wilkie also has the backing of Mattis and White House chief of staff John Kelly.
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee ranking member Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said he believes Wilkie is qualified and “a good guy,” and is waiting to see Wilkie’s responses to questions on his past positions.
“That’s why we’re having a hearing. He’ll have an opportunity to answer some of those questions. Many of them happened 20 years ago,” Tester said.
Asked if he had any concerns, Tester replied, “I think that’s a better question to ask me after the hearing. Truthfully. We’ll delve in on it a little bit. I’m sure I won’t be the only one.”
Trump nominated Wilkie in May to succeed former VA chief David Shulkin, who was forced out after reports arose on his taxpayer-funded travel.
Shulkin argues he was fired because he opposed the administration’s attempts at expanding veterans’ access to private-sector care.
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