WASHINGTON – Former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin is making it clear he was fired from his job amid conflicting claims from the White House.
White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters on Sunday told The Associated Press that Shulkin had "resigned" from his job when President Donald Trump abruptly announced via Twitter last Wednesday that he was nominating White House doctor Ronny Jackson to replace him.
But in television interviews, Shulkin said he had not submitted a resignation letter, or planned to, and was only told of Trump's decision shortly before the Twitter announcement. He said he had spoken to Trump by phone earlier that day about VA improvements, with no mention of his job status, and was scheduled to meet with the president the next morning.
"I came to run the Department of Veterans Affairs because I'm committed to veterans," Shulkin said. "And I would not resign because I'm committed to making sure this job was seen through to the very end."
The semantics could be relevant to Trump's ability to name an acting VA secretary to temporarily fill Shulkin's place. Last week, Trump named Defense Department official Robert Wilkie to the acting position, bypassing Shulkin's deputy secretary, Tom Bowman. Bowman has come under criticism for being too moderate to push Trump's agenda.
Under federal law, a president has wide authority to temporarily fill a federal agency job if someone "dies, resigns, or is otherwise unable to perform the functions and duties of the office." There is no mention of a president having that authority if the person is fired. Still, it's unclear if courts would seek to draw a legal distinction between a firing and a forced resignation, if that is indeed what happened to Shulkin.
The day after announcing he was replacing Shulkin, Trump told a rally in Richfield, Ohio, that he had been dissatisfied with efforts to improve the VA. Shulkin had enjoyed Trump's support for much of his first year in the administration, but that eroded in February after a bruising ethics scandal and political infighting at the VA.
On Sunday, chagrined by Shulkin's public statements blaming his ouster on unfair "political forces" in the Trump administration, the White House circulated a "talking points" memo to some veterans groups in a bid to discredit him. The three-page memo points out seven "lies" that it said Shulkin had spread, including statements in which he minimizes a VA watchdog report in February that concluded he violated ethics rules by accepting free Wimbledon tennis tickets. The VA inspector general has previously found Shulkin made misleading statements about the trip to investigators and the news media.
A VA spokesman did not have immediate comment. Wilkie, now listed on the VA website as acting secretary, took over Shulkin's duties last week.
The back and forth over the circumstances behind Shulkin's departure — and what it could mean for Wilkie's status — comes as the nomination of Jackson is drawing concern among lawmakers and veterans groups. They worry the Navy rear admiral and lifelong physician lacks the experience to manage an enormous agency paralyzed over Trump's push to expand private care.
Trump's new Cabinet nominees also are beginning to pile up in the Senate, likely leading to weeks of confirmation battles and other delays in the run-up to congressional midterm elections in November. That could mean an extended reign for an acting VA secretary.
On Sunday, Shulkin, who had previously recommended Jackson to be VA undersecretary of health, repeatedly demurred when asked to fully endorse Jackson for the job of VA secretary. He noted the complexity of running the government's second-largest department.
"This is a very tough job," Shulkin said. "I'm not sure that anybody realizes how complex this is. ... I think he is going to need to have a good team around him, like everybody will, to be successful."
Shulkin's dismissal comes amid a broader shakeup of top Trump administration officials and accusations of excessive spending by Cabinet officials. Also currently under fire are Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson.
The Associated Press reported last week that Pruitt paid just $50 a night for about six months last year to stay in a Capitol Hill condominium linked to a prominent Washington lobbyist whose firm represents fossil fuel companies.
On Sunday, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, and Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., questioned whether Pruitt would be able to last in his job.
"I don't know how you survive this one, and if he has to go, it's because he never should've been there in the first place," Christie said.
"He's in real trouble," Jones said. "I think it seems that he may be on his way out."
Shulkin spoke on CNN's "State of the Union" and NBC's "Meet the Press," and Jones and Christie appeared on ABC's "This Week."
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed from Palm Beach, Florida.