Perry denies interest in replacing VA Secretary Shulkin

Energy Secretary Rick Perry said Wednesday that he had no plans to replace David Shulkin as the next head of the Department of Veterans Affairs amid eroding White House support for the embattled Shulkin.

"I am energy secretary from now until the foreseeable future. Happily," Perry told reporters after a Senate hearing, adding that reports President Trump had floated him to replace Shulkin were "fake news."

Sources told Fox News Tuesday that Trump was considering shifting Perry to the VA. However, the former Texas governor and two-time Republican presidential candidate is said to be "very happy" at the Energy Department and has several long-term projects "on the go."

Trump and Perry met on Monday but the idea of Perry moving to the VA never came up, Fox News was told.

Shulkin, a former Obama administration official, has faced several investigations over his travel and leadership of the department. Until recently, he had received praise from President Donald Trump for his work to turn around the agency, but a raft of blistering VA watchdog reports detailing mismanagement and spending waste has weakened his standing.

In recent weeks, Shulkin has faced an insurgency within his department and now faces fresh allegations that he used a member of his security detail to run personal errands.

The uncertainty over Shulkin's status has left the government's second largest department virtually paralyzed, with members of Congress confused over who's in charge and what's being done to improve care for 9 million military veterans in more than 1,700 government-run health facilities. For the most part, Republican and Democratic lawmakers are still standing behind Shulkin, viewing him as the best guardian of VA who would fend off Trump administration efforts to privatize VA care.

"The President needs to decide whether he is going to empower Secretary Shulkin to do his job," said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the ranking member on the Veterans Affairs Committee. "We need to know who's calling the shots."

"Dysfunction in the administration has hindered our ability to move forward," he added.

Shulkin has been holding on to his job by a thread since a bruising internal report found ethics violations in connection with his trip to Europe with his wife last summer.

The VA inspector general also is looking into a complaint by a member of Shulkin's 24-7 security detail that he was asked to accompany the secretary to a Home Depot and carry furniture items into his home, according to two people familiar with the allegation who requested anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

Within the agency, a political adviser installed by Trump has openly mused to other VA staff about ousting the former Obama administration official. And a top communications aide has taken extended leave following a secret, failed attempt to turn lawmakers against him.

"The honeymoon is ending with a crash that hurts veterans most of all," said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who has been a close observer of VA for more than a decade. "VA always has bad news, but Shulkin's ethical and leadership failures are still significant — despite any internal attacks."

Senior administration officials describe a growing frustration that Shulkin repeatedly ignores their advice, only to beg for their help when he runs into ethical trouble. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to describe sensitive internal discussions, say Shulkin has been given a final warning to end the swirl of distractions. The administration is currently seeking to push Trump's agenda of aggressively expanding the Veterans Choice program, which major veterans groups worry could be an unwanted step toward privatizing VA health care.

The issue came to the fore at a White House meeting last week, when chief of staff John Kelly told Shulkin to stop talking to the news media without clearing it first with the White House and to stay focused on fixing veterans care.

Shulkin was escorted from that meeting to the Oval Office, where Trump questioned him about his efforts to push the Choice expansion, which lawmakers are now seeking to include in a massive spending bill that must be approved by next week to avert a government shutdown.

Shulkin is blaming the internal drama on a half-dozen or so political appointees whom he had considered firing, only to be blocked by Kelly.

"I regret anything that has distracted us from what we should be focusing on, which is serving veterans," Shulkin told the Associated Press shortly before release of an inspector general report that faulted the VA for "failed leadership" and an unwillingness or inability of leaders to take responsibility for accounting problems at a major VA hospital that put patients at risk.

It wasn't always this way.

Early in the administration, Shulkin was often seen at Trump's side. The president called him the "100-to-nothing man" — a reference to his unanimous Senate confirmation vote — and publicly teased that he probably would never be fired because he had successfully shepherded legislation to improve accountability at the VA and speed disability appeals.

By December, relations at the VA between Shulkin and several political appointees began to fray over philosophical differences.

Last month, the inspector general released a blistering report finding ethical violations in Shulkin's trip last July to Denmark and Britain that mixed business with pleasure. The IG found that Shulkin's chief of staff Vivieca Wright Simpson had doctored emails to justify his wife accompanying him at taxpayer expense. Wright Simpson retired after the report was issued.

Fox News' John Roberts and The Associated Press contributed to this report.