MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
It's not entirely clear who is running the Department of Veterans Affairs right now. Secretary David Shulkin is under the cloud of an ethics investigation that showed he charged his wife's travel to the VA on an official trip to Europe. Veterans groups are not happy with that, but they say what bothers them more is this investigation is being used by political operatives who want to dump Shulkin and privatize the VA. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Veterans Affairs had been a no-drama corner of the Trump administration with bipartisan consensus and plenty of legislative action in the past year. Shulkin is the only holdover from the Obama administration, and yet he was confirmed 100-0 by the Senate. President Trump joked about how he'd never use his reality TV line you're fired on Secretary David Shulkin.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We'll never have to use those words on our David. We will never use those words on you. That's for sure.
LAWRENCE: But then two things happened last week. The VA's inspector general slammed Shulkin for the trip to Europe and charged his chief of staff with misleading ethics officials about it. Shulkin reimbursed the VA for his wife's airfare. His chief of staff suddenly retired after more than 30 years at VA.
And then a leaked email written by a White House political appointee - it explicitly suggested that the travel scandal be used to get rid of VA senior staff and eventually Secretary Shulkin. It was the second thing that bothered veterans groups the most. Verna Jones is executive director of The American Legion.
VERNA JONES: There are people who think that VA should be privatized, and I don't believe that I think they're going to be able to do that with Dr. Shulkin at the helm of the Department of Veteran Affairs.
LAWRENCE: Most of the major veterans groups have made similar statements. The VFW called ideologues inside the White House, quote, "a cancer inside this administration." The dispute laid bare a long-brewing conflict inside the Trump administration.
Secretary Shulkin favors using some private care to shore up the VA, but several White House advisers are pushing for much greater privatization of VA care. Some of them are linked to a veterans advocacy group supported by the conservative Koch brothers, Concerned Veterans for America. Dan Caldwell is with CVA. He says the White House supports accountability at VA, and Shulkin may not be able to deliver that anymore.
DAN CALDWELL: How he has responded to this inspector general report has seriously hurt his ability to fix the VA's culture and instill accountability across the organization.
LAWRENCE: It's still not completely clear who has the upper hand, says Verna Jones.
JONES: We don't know. I think we'll just wait and see like everyone else at this point.
LAWRENCE: Part of why everyone is guessing is that the VA secretary's own press office has been referring questions to the White House and even removed some of Shulkin's statements from the website. Yesterday when press secretary Sarah Sanders was asked if Shulkin still had President Trump's confidence, she said...
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SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: I have no reason to believe otherwise. As we've said many times before, if somebody no longer has the confidence of the president, you guys will know.
LAWRENCE: So Shulkin has been contacting journalists directly. He told The Associated Press yesterday, quote, "there is no doubt I am the secretary." He also suggested that he has the support from the White House to get rid of staff who are undermining him, but President Trump still hasn't commented publicly on the issue. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.