Denis McDonough: What to know about Biden's VA secretary pick

McDonough has said he wants to restore trust in the VA system

President Biden entered office Wednesday without any cabinet members by his side, as they await confirmation hearings in the U.S. Senate.

Cabinet members in the Biden administration will be faced with uniting the various sectors of the U.S. government during a time of division. But in an attempt to stop the partisan divide in and outside of Washington, Biden vowed to nominate "the most diverse Cabinet in history."

Several of his picks have already made history, with the first openly gay man to be selected as Transportation Secretary, alongside the first Native American female as Secretary of Interior – an attempt by the Democratic president to establish a Cabinet that reflects the diversity of the nation.

Some of Biden’s picks have raised eyebrows, including his choice to lead the Department of Veteran Affairs, a $240 billion agency struggling under a sexual assault scandal and a reputation of inadequate veterans healthcare.

If confirmed by the Senate, Denis McDonough will become only the second non-veteran to serve in the roll.

Who is McDonough?

The soon to be Secretary of Veteran Affairs may not have any military or healthcare experience, but he is no stranger to the White House.

McDonough got his first taste of serving in the highest office in the U.S. as a senior adviser on foreign policy affairs for President Obama's transition team in 2008.

He then served as the Chief of Staff of the National Security Council before becoming the Deputy National Security Adviser for Obama – serving in the role during the 2011 Navy Seal raid in Pakistan that resulted in the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

He became Obama’s Chief of Staff in 2013.

What has he done?

McDonough was reportedly instrumental in bridging divides in congress to help get the Veterans Choice Act passed in 2014, according to the Washington Post. The act, which President Trump attempted to claim some credit for, enabled veterans to seek providers outside of VA medical centers.

Biden was also reportedly impressed by McDonough’s immersive attitude by regularly visiting troops in the field and checking on the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, while he served in the Obama administration, reported Politico last month.  

How do veterans feel about him?

The former Obama-era official has caught some veterans off guard who were hoping to see a post-9/11 veteran fill the position.

"We are surprised by reports the President-Elect Joe Biden intends to nominate Denis McDonough to become the next secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs," American Veterans (AMVETS) National Executive Director Joe Chenelly told Fox News in a statement last month, after Biden first made his announcement.

"We were expecting a veteran, maybe a post-9/11 veteran. Maybe a woman veteran," he continued. "Or maybe a veteran who knows the VA exceptionally well."

But Jeremy Butler, chief executive of the advocacy group, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, applauded McDonough’s official nomination Wednesday -- though he noted the challenges the secretary would face if confirmed -- not least of which is ensuring veterans get access to the coronavirus vaccine.

"Good to see the roster of [Department of Veteran Affairs] leadership coming together," Bulter said in a tweet Wednesday. "I support the nomination of Denis McDonough as the next Secretary but there is no denying that he will need a strong and experienced team to learn from and help him meet the needs of the nation's veterans."

What he plans to do

McDonough said that he will prioritize "making our VA more welcoming to all veterans, including our women veterans, veterans of color and LGBTQ veterans," reported the Military Times.

Biden has said he wants to expand the VA budget and to bring in more healthcare professionals, including medical officials from the private sector, in order to enhance the care that veterans can expect to receive.

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The former Obama-era official said he will work to rebuild veteran’s trust in the VA system by improving the agency’s management and accountability.

"The agency charged with meeting the needs of veterans should not be limited by outdated tools and practices," he wrote in a personal pledge published by Military Times in December. "Our veterans deserve the best we as a nation have to offer."