What you need to know about VA nominee Robert Wilkie’s confirmation hearing

Matt Saintsing
June 27, 2018 - 6:19 pm



Robert Wilkie, President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, breezed through his Senate Confirmation hearing Wednesday, where he pledged to focus the agency on improving customer service and better incorporate health care options outside the VA.

Wilkie listed his priorities for the Department, should he be confirmed: “Improve the culture” of the VA, “offer world-class customer service,” implement the VA Mission Act, and reduce the backlog of benefits requests.

The afternoon was smooth sailing for Wilkie, as this was his third appearance before a confirmation hearing.

“It’s clear to me that the veteran population is changing faster than we realize,” he told the Senate committee. “For the first time in over 40 years, half of our veterans are under the age of 65. Of America’s 20 million veterans, 10 percent are now women.”

“The new generation is computer savvy and demands 21st century service,” he continued. “Service that is quick, diverse, and close to home.”

At 55, Wilkie is an Air Force Reserve officer who serves as the Defense Department’s undersecretary for personnel and readiness, and was VA’s acting secretary for two months after Trump fired embattled VA Secretary David Shulkin.

VA’s recent leadership void was a popular topic among multiple senators who questioned how much autonomy Wilkie would have from the White House as he’ll work to bring the service provided to veterans up to standards.

Ranking Member Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) asked Wilkie if he would be “empowered to do what is best for our veterans even if that is in disagreement with the president.”

Wilkie said he has been fortunate enough to work for some of the “most high-powered people in this town…they pay me for my opinions and I give those to them or I would not be working.”

One issue sure to cause some friction is over the recently passed VA Mission Act, which overhauls how the department provides community care. Critics of the sweeping bill have said the administration is too eager to send federal money to doctors outside of the VA and fear a brain drain of top VA talent, at a time when it is critically understaffed.

But Willkie said he is supportive of the law and that veterans need to have more access to their medical care, even if that means receiving some of that care in the private sector. However, he also went out of his way multiple times to dispel any notions that he would support “privatizing” the VA.

Most senators declined to ask questions regarding Wilkie’s past, that have made news in the past few days, including charges he defended racially charged and sexist policies while working as a Senate staffer.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), one of Wilkie’s former bosses, said the reports were unfair to the nominee. Wilkie called out the Washington Post by name saying they stopped reviewing at his record 20 years ago—a clear taunt.

He also defended his past activities with the Sons of Confederate Veterans saying his work in Washington did not reflect any racist views.

Senators from across the political spectrum praised Wilkie and many said they expect to see him confirmed. Tester lauded his grace at the hearing, saying Wilkie “ain’t a rookie.”

“I think you got the tools to do the job,” he added.

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