As VA Secretary defends Trump, reports say POTUS considering him for Defense Secretary

Abbie Bennett
September 08, 2020 - 10:39 am
U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie speaks during an East Room event to announce the “PREVENTS Task Force” at the White House June 17, 2020 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie defended President Donald Trump against allegations he disparaged troops and veterans, as reports emerged that the president may be considering him for the top Pentagon position.

Wilkie appeared on CNN's State of the Union over the holiday weekend, dismissing allegations that the president previously referred to service members and veterans, including prisoners of war and wounded troops, as "suckers" and "losers," among other comments. The president has unequivocally denied the allegations. Wilkie called the reports, originally from The Atlantic and then confirmed, at least in part, by the Associated Press, The Washington Post, Fox News and CNN, "politics" and the "heat of the campaign." 

The president has made his record on veterans and the military a focal point of his re-election campaign, and the recent reports have all but ensured the military and veterans remain a focus of the race as Trump and Joe Biden head into the November election. Neither of the presidential candidates or their running mates served in the military. 

The VA Secretary said he had "absolutely not" heard the president disparage U.S. service members or veterans. 

"I would be offended too if I thought it was true," said Wilkie, who is a Navy Reserve veteran and colonel in the Air Force Reserve.

"I am very proud that this president has led to a renaissance at Veterans Affairs," Wilkie said, touting a 90% approval rating at VA. Wilkie and other VA officials frequently cite these approval ratings, which are in-house surveys of VA patients and beneficiaries, but typically provide few details on the methodology for those surveys. "We have completely turned around Veterans Affairs." 

"The Donald Trump that I know," Wilkie said, has improved the Department of Veterans Affairs beyond the state it was in under the Obama administration, adding that as VA Secretary, he's now concerned with addressing "all the wrongs" left from "four years ago." 

During his time at the Pentagon, Wilkie said he "watched this president sign letters of condolences for those who've fallen in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was on the frontlines then. I'm judging the president by what he's done as president"

Because of Trump, "our military is stronger, our Veterans Affairs Department is in a place that it has never been," Wilkie said. "This is the renaissance and it's all because of one man." 

VA officials did not initially respond to requests for comment from Wilkie about the allegations against the president, but on Tuesday, VA Press Secretary Christina Noel referred inquiries to the CNN interview. 

Wilkie was also asked to respond to videos showing Trump disparaging Sen. John McCain.

"I understand politics, I understand name-calling when it comes from both sides," Wilkie said. "All I can say is, the proof in the pudding for us is what has happened for veterans in the last three years."   

Wilkie said he "absolutely" believed McCain was a war hero. 

When asked to respond to Trump's comments about McCain and prisoners of war in 2015, specifically when the president said, "I like people who weren't captured," Wilkie said, "I judge a man by his actions and the actions have been beneficial for veterans all across this country in ways we haven't seen since the end of World War II. I would also say the same for the United States military."

Secretary of Defense

On Monday, NBC News published a report citing three senior administration officials who said Trump has considered Wilkie as a replacement for Mark Esper as Secretary of Defense, and that the president has spoken to Wilkie about it directly. 

Wilkie has courted the idea of the top Pentagon spot previously, including during his time as VA Secretary, a job he was confirmed to in 2018. The Navy Reserve vet and Air Force Reserve colonel is a graduate of the College of Naval Command and Staff, Air Command and Staff College, U.S. Army War College and Joint Forces Staff College. He frequently references his father, a wounded Vietnam veteran, and his upbringing in Fayetteville and Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

At the Pentagon, Wilkie has served as Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness under Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis and other roles under Secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates. 

The NBC News report said Wilkie was among several potential candidates to replace Esper "informally interviewed" by White House officials this summer as tensions mounted between Trump and Esper, and the president allegedly threatened to remove his Defense Secretary. 

Trump and Esper have contradicted each other on several issues and decisions in the last few months, including cutting funding to historic military newspaper Stars & Stripes, invoking the Insurrection Act to address nationwide civil unrest, renaming military bases honoring the Confederacy and cuts to military health care

Esper is Trump's third Defense Secretary and has had the job officially for just more than a year. 

Noel referred questions to the White House and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.

Choice vs Mission

Wilkie was asked on CNN why the president has repeatedly claimed credit for the 2014 Choice Act as one of his major accomplishments for veterans. That legislation was signed into law by then-President Barack Obama, and later expanded under legislation signed by Trump, and then replaced in 2019 by the Mission Act, also signed by Trump.

Wilkie said Trump has expanded "choice," or the opportunity to seek care outside VA, paid for by VA, to "all veterans" and called arguments about the names of specific legislation "semantics."  

"The Mission Act actually expands Choice to all veterans," Wilkie said, though the Mission Act does not allow all veterans to receive subsidized care outside VA. "The Obama initiative was designed to fail. It only gave a few veterans choice, it had an expiration date and they didn't pay their bills. I've spent the last two years trying to pay the bills left over from the Obama administration and for the first time -- and the president is absolutely right on this -- all veterans have choice. It's permanent." 

In February, VA officials told Capitol Hill lawmakers they don't know how much care has been provided to veterans through the Mission Act so far, or how much the expansion has cost. In January, the VA Inspector General also warned that wait times could increase under the Mission Act. At launch in June 2019, about 40% of veterans were eligible for private care through the Mission Act. 

Wilkie also said the president uses the term "Choice" to refer to his work to expand veterans' care because "Choice is much easier to understand than the Mission Act, which is the title Congress put on the president's program." 

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Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett.

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