Shulkin tries to calm controversy over his exit as White House accuses him of ‘lies’

A day after he was attacked in a White House memo that accused him of spreading “lies”, the former veterans affairs secretary David Shulkin sought to calm controversy over his named successor.

Shulkin left his post last week. He has said he was fired. The White House insists he resigned. Donald Trump named the White House doctor, R Adm Ronny Jackson, to replace Shulkin despite the physician’s lack of government or managerial experience.

The key for improving the VA will be surrounding Jackson with a good team, Shulkin told CNN on Monday, “because no one person can do this alone”.

“I have comfort because I know Dr Jackson,” he said. “Dr Jackson is a very honorable man who wants to do the right thing.”

Shulkin also said again there was no reason he would have resigned. He said he was told he was out by the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, moments before Trump tweeted the news.

On Sunday, as Shulkin made his case on network talkshows, the White House circulated a “talking points” memo to some veterans groups in an attempt to discredit the former secretary. The three-page memo, obtained by the Associated Press, points out seven “lies” that it says Shulkin had spread.

They include statements in which Shulkin minimizes a VA watchdog report in February that concluded he violated ethics rules by accepting free Wimbledon tennis tickets. The VA inspector general has found Shulkin made misleading statements about the trip to investigators and the news media.

In his television interviews, Shulkin said he had not submitted a resignation letter, or planned to. He said he had spoken to Trump by phone earlier on the day of his exit, about VA improvements and 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.”

Trump named defense department official Robert Wilkie to be acting VA chief, bypassing Shulkin’s deputy, 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 what happens if the person is fired. It is unclear if courts would seek to draw a legal distinction between a firing and a forced resignation.

The day after announcing he was replacing Shulkin, Trump told a rally in Richfield, Ohio, 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 mounting ethics questions and political infighting at the VA.

Wilkie, now listed on the VA website as acting secretary, took over last week.

The back and forth over the circumstances behind Shulkin’s departure comes as the nomination of Jackson is drawing concern among lawmakers and veterans groups. They worry the navy rear admiral lacks the experience to manage a huge agency which has become paralyzed over Trump’s push to expand private care.

Trump’s new cabinet nominees also are beginning to pile up in the Senate, probably leading to weeks of confirmation battles and other delays in the run-up to midterm elections in November. That could mean an extended reign for an acting VA secretary.

Shulkin’s dismissal comes amid a broader shake-up and accusations of excessive spending by cabinet officials. Currently under fire are the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, and housing and urban development secretary, Ben Carson.

Shulkin had agreed to reimburse the government more than $4,000 after the VA internal watchdog concluded last month that he had improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets and that his then chief of staff doctored emails to justify his wife traveling to Europe with him at taxpayer expense.

Shulkin also blamed internal drama at the agency on half a dozen or so rebellious political appointees who support the privatization drive, insisting he had White House backing to fire them.

But the continuing VA infighting and a fresh raft of watchdog reports documenting leadership failures and spending waste – as well as fresh allegations that Shulkin used a member of his security detail to run personal errands – proved too much of a distraction.

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