Okay, but who is Robert Wilkie? Here are 4 things to know

Matt Saintsing
June 08, 2018 - 3:51 pm

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Dallas Johnson

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Robert Wilkie came to head the Department of Veterans Affairs in March as it's temporary leader, when President Donald Trump ousted embattled former VA Secretary David Shulkin. But now Mr. Trump wants to make that permanent.

Trump announced his intent to officially nominate Wilkie as the 10th VA Secretary in a surprising announcement May 18, that even caught Wilkie off-guard.

Speaking at an event on prison reform at the White House, Trump said "Acting secretary Wilkie, who by the way has done an incredible job, and by the way I'll be informing him in a little while – he doesn't know this yet — that we'll be putting his name up for nomination."

“I’m sorry I ruined the surprise,” the president said to a room of laughter.

And while he’s well-known in the halls of Congress and among Washington bureaucrats, he remains relatively unknown in veteran circles.

Here’s what we know:

He’s a veteran

The son of an Army artilleryman, Wilkie grew up at Fort Bragg, N.C. That must have made an impression on him since at 55, he’s worn the uniform in both the Navy and Air Force reserves.

Wilkie served in the U.S. Naval Reserve, the Air Force Reserve and was once assigned to the office of the Defense Department

He’s got some serious political chops

From 2005 to 2009, he served as Assistant Secretary of Defense under two former Secretaries, Robert Gates and Donald Rumsfeld —he was the youngest senior leader in the department. Before that, he was a Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and a senior director of the National Security Council (NSC), under Condoleeza Rice.

But he really cut his teeth in Congress as a senior advisor to Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), and an advisor on international security affairs to former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS.).

His experience with government bureaucracy could serve him well as the embattled agency grips with long-wait times, and new sweeping VA legislation. And since his current role at the Pentagon requires Senate approval, he’s navigated the confirmation process before.

He’s been more than an acting VA secretary

Wilkie still holds his current job as Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, but has been more than engaged with the inner workings of VA.

He helped shepherd the VA Mission Act through Congress, and inked a $10 billion contract to revamp VA’s electronic health system, the night before Trump’s announcement.

And he’s been more than ready to jump into policy debates by calling on Congress to fund the popular Veterans Choice program, which allows veterans to receive private healthcare in their own communities.

There was a lawsuit blocking his appointment

Shortly after Trump announced Wilkie’s nomination, VoteVets, a progressive veterans organization, sued the Trump administration to block his appointment. They argue that he cannot be both acting VA secretary and the nominee, citing a federal statute that bars anyone from serving as an “acting officer” and a nominee.

But not every veterans group supports that lawsuit. Joe Chenelly, AMVETS executive director previously said “We believe that he’s doing a good job at this point,” adding they don’t see any reason have Wilkie forgo the confirmation process.