Former VA chief Shulkin: 'Chaos' probably a 'pretty accurate term' to describe Trump White House

Former VA chief Shulkin: 'Chaos' probably a 'pretty accurate term' to describe Trump White House
© Greg Nash

Former Veterans Affairs Secretary David ShulkinDavid Jonathon ShulkinTrump sent policy pitch from Mar-a-Lago member to VA secretary: report Is a presidential appointment worth the risk? It’s time to end the scare tactics and get to work for our veterans MORE said on Monday that the “chaos” in the early months of the Trump White House ultimately made it easier to pass major legislation to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Shulkin, the only holdover from the Obama administration in President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Trump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment MORE’s Cabinet, told an audience at the Harvard School of Public Health that he entered the Trump administration “in a brand-new time, where they were just trying to figure out how they wanted things to work."

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“Some people use the word chaos — that would probably be a pretty accurate term — as they were trying to figure out how they wanted to run the organization,” Shulkin said.

“Having a very loose management style in the White House was actually something that worked well for me because I came, I presented the ideas, the president said, ‘You know that sounds like a good thing to do for veterans, let’s do it.’ And I was able to get a lot done.”

Shulkin said the department was able to get 11 bills passed through in Trump's first year, “so, interestingly, the management style that I found in the White House, while [it] wasn’t always clear how you got to a decision, ultimately, having access to the president, I think, worked in favor of the VA.”

He also compared working under President Obama to working under Trump, calling the former “a well, well-run oiled machine” when he came in during the last 18 months of the administration.

“There was really very clear decisionmaking, there were clear paths for how you got decisions done. ... The president would be well-briefed when we met with him, understood the issues, [was] very analytic, thoughtful and it was usually a pretty extensive discussion before decisions were made,” he said.

Trump, on the other hand, “isn’t one that likes to spend a huge amount of time reviewing the details. He’s more of a person who reacts to his belief system,” he added.

Shulkin appeared frequently in the White House briefing room during Trump’s first year to tout accomplishments, including legislation that makes it easier for the 360,000-person agency to fire employees.

But Trump in March fired Shulkin over Twitter after reports emerged that raised questions about his taxpayer-funded travel.

Shulkin contended in a New York Times op-ed written shortly thereafter that he was fired because he opposed Trump’s attempts at dramatically expanding veterans’ access to private-sector care.

“I am convinced that privatization is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans,” he wrote.

“Unfortunately, the department has become entangled in a brutal power struggle, with some political appointees choosing to promote their agendas instead of what’s best for veterans.”

Shulkin said Monday that he made sure that he didn’t “play politics” when he came to Washington.

He said he hit resistance, however, when he ran into VA political appointees “that wanted to be there for political reasons and not for transforming the VA.”

“I was going to stay adherent to the principles and to what I thought was right, and if it cost me my job, so be it, and that’s what happened,” he said.

“I was very clear about where I stood on things and it didn’t always mix with what the politics were, and I understood that there were consequences with that and I was OK with that rather than bending my principles.”

Shulkin came under fire in February after the VA’s inspector general released a report on a trip to Europe that found he spent most of his time sightseeing rather than conducting official business and improperly accepted tickets to a Wimbledon tennis match as a gift.

He blamed the findings on an internal rebellion by some Trump appointees, and reports surfaced that two senior VA officials tried to oust the VA chief late last year.

Shulkin also said he believes the VA “is moving forward in the right direction” on several initiatives that will make a difference for veterans — including a new electronic medical record system and help with homelessness.

But he said he worries the government is losing too many experienced professionals under the Trump administration.

“That sort of hollowing out of experienced people who have said, ‘This is getting too hard, and there must be an easier way to make a living’ — we’re losing people with both experience and passion to have that public service.

“We need the best and brightest to be in Washington ... that is more important now than ever before.”