The Slatest

White House Says Former Veterans Affairs Secretary Shulkin Resigned. He Insists He Was Fired.

David Shulkin testifies during a hearing before the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Subcommittee of House Appropriations Committee March 15, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
David Shulkin testifies during a hearing before the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on March 15 on Capitol Hill in Washington. Alex Wong/Getty Images

In Washington, politicians are often eager to say they resigned rather than admit they were fired. But that is completely the opposite of what is happening with David Shulkin, who insists he was fired as secretary of Veterans Affairs while the White House insists he resigned. “I came to fight for our veterans and I had no intention of giving up,” Shulkin said Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press. “There would be no reason for me to resign. I made a commitment, I took an oath, and I was here to fight for our veterans.”

Shulkin, who was the lone holdover from the Obama administration, pushed the same message on CNN’s State of the Union: “Well, Jake, I came to run the Department of Veterans Affairs because I’m committed to veterans, and I’m committed to fighting for them. And I would not resign, because I’m committed to making sure this job was seen through to the very end,” Shulkin told CNN’s Jake Tapper, who proceeded to press the former secretary on whether or not he was fired. “I did not resign,” he said emphatically.

Shulkin’s comments on the Sunday talk shows contradict what the White House told Politico on Saturday. “Secretary Shulkin resigned from his position as Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs,” spokeswoman Lindsey Walters said in a statement. Why does any of this matter? Because Trump personally picked Robert Wilkie to be the acting leader of the department and not Shulkin’s deputy. That has once again led to debate about how much power the president has to pick replacements for Cabinet secretaries that are fired. Politico explains:

The debate centers on vague language in the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998, which gives the president broad authority to temporarily fill a vacancy at a federal agency with an acting official if the current office holder “dies, resigns, or is otherwise unable to perform the functions and duties of the office.”

But some legal experts note that the law does not explicitly grant that authority to the president in the case of firings. That could make Trump’s decision to appoint Wilkie, the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, as acting VA secretary a potential test of the president’s authorities under the act.

And it means that any formal actions Wilkie takes as acting secretary could face a legal challenge that might stall sorely needed reforms and modernizations at the troubled agency.

In an interview with USA Today, Shulkin said that Trump is “not being well served by all the people around him.” Although he agreed the president has the right to have people around him he trusts, “I think many of the things that we’re seeing and that we’re struggling with have to do with building that team and the staff around him.”

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Shulkin said that the department he led has “become entangled in a brutal power struggle” as some political appointees “seek to privatize veteran health care as an alternative to government-run V.A. care.”