Was it “I quit” or “You’re fired,” and why it matters

Jonathan Kaupanger
April 02, 2018 - 1:36 pm

© Jarrad Henderson-USA TODAY Sports

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Did he get fired or did he resign?  Does the new Acting Secretary have legal authority to run the Agency? Why was VA’s deputy secretary passed over as “acting secretary?”  These answers and more on the next episode of the Department of Veterans Affairs...

If it sounds like a soap opera, it’s probably because events are acting out like it is one.

“I would not resign, because I’m committed to making sure this job was seen through to the very end,” said former VA Secretary Dr. David J. Shulkin in an interview on CNN.  “I did not resign.”

You might be wondering why it matters, if Shulkin was fired or resigned.  It all revolves around a 1998 law, the Federal Vacancies Reform Act (FVRA).  This law gives the president authority to temporarily fill vacancies at federal agencies if the current office holder “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.

Shulkin has been making the rounds on TV saying that he was fired.  The White House spokesperson, Lindsay Walters, is giving a different message. 

“Secretary Shulkin resigned from his position as Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs,” said Walters, as reported by The Hill.   his could open up a legal fight over who the President assigned to run VA as Acting Secretary, Robert Wilkie.

Normally the job of “acting secretary” would fall to the number two position at VA, Deputy Secretary Thomas Bowman. Politico has reported that the President and Bowman haven’t always seen eye to eye on subjects. Recently, after Bowman argued against privatizing veteran healthcare, the president berated him in an Oval Office meeting due to his lack of loyalty. Because of this and other issues, White House Chief-of-Staff John Kelly and other aids argued it would be better if Bowman were gone – even if only temporarily – before Shulkin was shown the door.

The former secretary has stated that he did not submit a resignation letter or that he ever planned on doing so. He was given the heads up that something was about to happen in a phone call by Kelly prior to the twitter announcement. Shulkin said that he had spoken to the president earlier in the day and that there was no mention of him being fired. Trump and Shulkin were scheduled to have a meeting on the VA the following day.

The "did he quit or get fired?" argument could end up taking the VA to court and causing problems for veterans.  If Wilkie makes any major decisions while as acting secretary, groups could argue that the FVRA didn’t apply because Shulkin was fired.  “That uncertainty creates risk, which is a real problem,” said Max Stier, the President of the Partnership for Public Service, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune.  “I don’t believe any court has opined on this as of yet. It is uncertainty piled on top of uncertainty with real harm being caused to the VA and veterans.”