Trump’s nominee to lead the VA: ‘I welcome the scrutiny of my entire record’
Robert Wilkie, President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, defended his record in the wake of a Washington Post report that delved into his career, including his past membership and support of organizations dedicated to preserving Confederate memorials and honoring the confederacy.
Questioned by Hawaii Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono, Wilkie said that he welcomes scrutiny of his “entire record.”
“I will say, and I say it respectfully, I welcome the scrutiny of my entire record,” Wilkie told Hirono. “The Washington Post seemed to stop at my record about 25 years ago. If I had been what The Washington Post implied, I don’t think I would have been able to work for Condoleezza Rice or Bob Gates or Jim Mattis.”
Wilkie also said he had submitted to more than a half-dozen FBI background investigations.
“They just finished an investigation going all the way back to my 18th year, so I will stand on my record,” he added.
The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that Wilkie had defended Confederate insignia, attended Confederate memorial events and joined — and later left — the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization that has defended public displays of the Confederate flag.
In a statement to The Washington Post, Wilkie said he no longer attends ceremonies honoring fallen Confederate soldiers, and a Pentagon spokeswoman told the Post that Wilkie no longer counts himself a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Wilkie also addressed one specific assertion in the Washington Post report — that in the 1990s he marked draft legislation with edits that called on Congress to require young women to finish high school as a condition of receiving welfare.
Wilkie said that, at the time, he was the floor manager for then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and that he took the legislation to Lott and that Lott and the staff made changes.
“Some of the changes I remember making did not get put in the Washington Post story,” he said, adding later that he did not remember making the specific change in question.
Wilkie added that he did not believe women, including veterans, should have to finish high school to receive government benefits.
“That would never enter my mind,” he told Hirono.
Wilkie, under questions from his former boss, Sen. Thom Tillis, addressed the Post’s reporting that he participated in events honoring fallen Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery and the United States Capitol.
Wilkie told Tillis that he participated in three events, two sanctioned by the Department of the Army and Defense, and one by the Speaker of the House.
“Those events … were big events, participation by Senate and House members,” Wilkie said. “The last one, the only thing I did was introduce a fellow named Rod Maxwell, who’s the producer of the famous movie Gettysburg. And I thanked President Obama for his support of an event that celebrated America’s veterans, both Union and Confederate.”
He also seemed to respond to questions regarding his past membership of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group that defends public displays of Confederate symbols, telling Tillis: “I stopped doing many of those things at a time when that issue became divisive.”
Wilkie also played a leading role in justifying the White House’s ban on transgender troops earlier this year but the issue did not come up during Thursday hearing.
Wilkie, an officer in the Air Force Reserves who worked on Capitol Hill as well as at the Pentagon under two different administrations, was nominated to lead the VA in an acting capacity after Trump fired his first VA secretary and the White House physician tapped to replace him withdrew his nomination.
In May, Trump announced that Wilkie was his pick to be the agency’s permanent leader, putting him on tap to lead a sprawling agency that has grown more dysfunctional by the month, though reforming the VA was among Trump’s campaign pledges.
Willkie will likely face questions from senators about how far he would shift medical appointments for the nation’s veterans into the private sector while the government pays for the treatment — the issue that led the President to fire his first VA secretary, David Shulkin, in March.
In the wake of Shulkin’s tenure, during which he accused political operatives at the department of undermining his role and plotting to oust him, Wilkie will also likely face questions about his leadership and whether he would make sweeping changes to the VA staff. A slew of senior leaders have left the agency in recent months, many of whom said they had grown tired of the agency’s internal politics.
Trump nominated Wilkie to lead the VA after attempting to name Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, who served as the President’s physician, to the job. Jackson faced criticism from lawmakers and veterans advocates over his lack of experience to lead the sprawling bureaucracy.
Ultimately though, Jackson withdrew from consideration after explosive — though unsubstantiated —–allegations of misconduct from his time at the White House Medical Unit became public. Though he withdrew from consideration, Jackson has denied the allegations.