President Donald Trump is considering firing embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin with Energy Secretary Rick Perry – hours after terminating Rex Tllierson by Twitter on Tuesday morning.
A source familiar with the White House discussions tells The Associated Press that Trump has floated the notion of the Cabinet reshuffle as a way to right the ship at the VA, believing Shulkin has become a distraction to the department’s work.
The source was not authorized to discuss internal deliberations.
Shulkin has faced several investigations over his travel and leadership of the department, but until now has received praise from the president for his work to turn around the department.
Trump hosted Perry at the White House for lunch Monday, but no formal job offer was made, the source says.
A double firing would be a dramatic departure for the president – but only top a day of sensational developments in his administration.
Tillerson bid farewell to the State Department on Tuesday, revealing that President Donald Trump had not told him he was out of a job until three hours after publicly firing him in a tweet heard round the world.
Fresh off terminating Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday, Donald Trump could create another Cabinet casualty soon
Trump canned Tillerson with a tweet, and could be spoiling to swing another ‘Apprentice’-style axe
President Donald Trump is considering replacing embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin with Energy Secretary Rick Perry
Perry, a retired Air Force Pilot and former Texas governor, could move over to the VA Department, and had lunch with the president on Monday
Replacement: Mike Pompeo, who had been CIA director, will now lead the State Department and Gina Haspel, a career CIA officer who was its deputy director will become the first woman to lead it
And in a statement to reporters, Tillerson pointedly neglected to thank Trump for the opportunity to serve in the role once inhabited by Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Webster and Henry Kissinger. Instead he thanked ‘the 300-plus million Americans’ whom he ultimately served, and said he would soon thank his front-office and policy planning staff in person.
He said shortly after 2:00 p.m. that he had talked with Trump around lunchtime. The president’s unexpected tweet came before 9:00 a.m.
‘I received a call today from the President of the United States a little after noontime from Air Force One,’ he said.
‘I’ve also spoken to White House Chief of Staff Kelly to ensure we have clarity as to the days ahead.’
The shaken-sounding outgoing cabinet secretary explained that his official ending date will be March 31, and that he aims for an ‘orderly and smooth transition’ for his replacement, CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan will assume Tillerson’s duties at midnight. But Tillerson said his official ‘commission’ – his grant of authority from the president – wouldn’t expire until the end of the month.
Trump effectively fired Tillerson on Tuesday without telling him personally, announcing on Twitter that he would dismiss him and elevate the nation’s spymaster to the role of global diplomat-in-chief.
And he said he will appoint a woman to lead the CIA for the first time in history.
YOU’RE ALL FIRED! DONALD TRUMP’S ASTONISHING LIST OF SENIOR DEPARTURES
Who went and when:
March 13, 2018: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
March 12, 2018: Special Assistant and personal aide to the president John McEntee
March 6, 2018: Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Gary Cohn
Feb. 28, 2018: Communications Director Hope Hicks
Feb. 27, 2018: Deputy Communications Director Josh Raffel
Feb. 7, 2018: Staff Secretary Rob Porter
Dec. 13, 2017: Communications Director for the White House Office of Public Liaison Omarosa Manigault Newman
Dec. 8, 2017: Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell
Sept. 29, 2017: Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price
Aug. 25, 2017: National security aide Sebastian Gorka
Aug. 18, 2017: Chief strategist Steve Bannon
July 31, 2017: Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci
July 28, 2017: Chief of Staff Reince Priebus
July 21, 2017: Press secretary Sean Spicer
May 30, 2017: Communications Director Michael Dubke
May 9, 2017: FBI Director James Comey
March 30, 2017: Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh
Feb. 13, 2017: National Security Adviser Michael Flynn
Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Steven Goldstein said in a statement that Tillerson had ‘had every intention of staying.’
‘The Secretary did not speak to the President and is unaware of the reason, but he is grateful for the opportunity to serve,’ Goldstein added.
He was later fired himself for departing from the official White House line – which was that Trump had told Tillerson on Friday that he would be leaving.
Tillerson’s last public act had been firmly blaming Russia for the poisoning of a former spy and his daughter – which the White House had pointedly avoided saying was carried out by Vladimir Putin’s government.
As he left the White House for a trip to California, Trump told reporters that he and Tillerson had been ‘talking about this for a long time’ but that he ‘made the decision by myself.’
‘We disagreed on things,’ Trump said, citing the Obama-era nuclear agreement with Iran. ‘I think Rex will be much happier now,’ he declared.
‘We were not really thinking the same. With Mike, Mike Pompeo, we have a very similar thought process. I think it’s going to go very well.’
Trump made no mention of the most notorious tussle between him and Tillerson, when the secretary of state was reported to have called the president a ‘f***ing moron’ then refused to deny it.
The State Department said Tillerson only learned of his termination when he read Trump’s tweet on Tuesday morning.
Two senior department officials said Tillerson received a call from John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, on Friday, but was only told that there might be a presidential tweet that would concern him.
Kelly didn’t tell Tillerson what the tweet might say or when it might actually publish, according to the official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.
Tillerson had told reporters on his plane he had cut short his trip by one night because he was exhausted after working most of the night two nights in a row and getting sick in Ethiopia.
There were no obvious signs from his behavior or his aides on the plane that his departure was imminent.
‘I felt like, look, I just need to get back,’ Tillerson said.
Instead he was fired and left to spend time with his wife, Renda St. Clair, who had told him to take the job when he was reluctant to himself.
He had revealed last year how when Trump offered him the role ‘I was going to the ranch to be with my grandkids.’
Instead his wife shook her finger in his face and told him: ‘I told you God’s not through with you.’
But by last week Trump was through with Tillerson instead.
One senior White House official said that when Trump made the dramatic and sudden decision last Friday to meet with Kim Jong Un – a decision made while Tillerson was in Africa – an aide asked if Tillerson should weigh in on the matter.
Trump said there was no reason to consult him because no matter what the group decided, Tillerson would be against it, the official said.
On the White House lawn Trump gushed that his future secretary Mike Pompeo has ‘tremendous energy, tremendous intellect, we’re always on the same wavelength. The relationship has been very good.’
The president had tweeted earlier that Pompeo ‘will do a fantastic job!’
‘Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!’
Shulkin’s departure would be far less significant. He is hanging onto his job by a thread as he faces an insurgency from within the agency and new allegations that he had a member of his security detail go shopping with him at Home Depot and then cart the purchases into his house.
Senior administration officials say Shulkin is increasingly on thin ice with President Donald Trump after a bruising internal report found ethics violations in connection with the secretary’s trip to Europe with his wife last summer.
A political adviser installed by Trump at the Department of Veterans Affairs has openly mused to other VA staff about ousting the former Obama administration official. And a top communications aide has taken extended leave following a secret, failed attempt to turn lawmakers against him.
‘The honeymoon is ending with a crash that hurts veterans most of all,’ said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who has been a close observer of VA for more than a decade. ‘VA always has bad news, but Shulkin’s ethical and leadership failures are still significant – despite any internal attacks.’
Shulkin also is bracing for an upcoming VA watchdog report, due for release by summer, that focuses in part on whether he used his 24-7 security detail for personal errands.
The audit is investigating a complaint by a security staff member who said he was asked to accompany the secretary to a Home Depot and carry furniture items into his home, according to two people familiar with the allegation who requested anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
Senior administration officials describe a growing frustration that Shulkin repeatedly ignores their advice, only to beg for their help when he runs into ethical trouble. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to describe sensitive internal discussions, say Shulkin has been given a final warning to end the swirl of distractions.
Shulkin is the lone Obama administration holdover in Trump’s cabinet
Trump used twitter to terminate the career of Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil boss who had been secretary of state for 15 months
The administration is currently seeking to push Trump’s agenda of aggressively expanding the Veterans Choice program, which major veterans groups worry could be an unwanted step toward privatizing VA health care.
The issue came to the fore at a White House meeting last week, when Chief of Staff John Kelly told Shulkin to stop talking to the news media without clearing it first with the White House and to stay focused on fixing veterans care.
Shulkin was escorted from that meeting to the Oval Office, where Trump questioned him about his efforts to push the Choice expansion, which lawmakers are now seeking to include in a massive spending bill that must be approved by next week to avert a government shutdown.
With Shulkin present, the president telephoned conservative Pete Hegseth, a ‘Fox & Friends’ contributor who was vetted in late 2016 for VA secretary, to get his views on how to proceed with the expansion. Hegseth, a former president of the conservative group Concerned Veterans for America, declined to comment for this article.
Tillerson said he will return to ‘private life’ after 14 months of turbulent leadership of the State Department and didn’t take questions from reporters on Tuesday
Dan Caldwell, executive director of CVA, lauded the White House focus on Choice amid the ongoing controversies involving Shulkin. ‘Despite the internal drama going on in the VA, which has been a distraction, Congress has continued to work to a solution that everyone can rally around,’ he said.
Shulkin is blaming the internal drama on a half-dozen or so political appointees whom he had considered firing, only to be blocked by Kelly.
‘I regret anything that has distracted us from what we should be focusing on, which is serving veterans,’ Shulkin told the AP shortly before release of an inspector general report that faulted the VA for ‘failed leadership’ and an unwillingness or inability of leaders to take responsibility for accounting problems at a major VA hospital that put patients at risk.
It wasn’t always this way.
Early in the administration, Shulkin was often seen at Trump’s side, waving to crowds at campaign-style events in Pennsylvania or addressing reporters in a doctor’s lab coat as he tutored Trump on telehealth. Trump called him the ‘100-to-nothing man’ — a reference to his unanimous Senate confirmation vote – and publicly teased that he probably would never be fired because he had successfully shepherded legislation to improve accountability at the VA and speed disability appeals.
By December, relations at the VA between Shulkin and several political appointees began to fray over philosophical differences.
In a Dec. 4 internal email obtained by the AP, Jake Leinenkugel, a senior aide installed as part of a Cabinet-wide program to monitor secretaries’ loyalty, said Shulkin was becoming increasingly distrustful and regarded Camilo Sandoval, a senior adviser in VA’s health arm, as a White House ‘spy.’
The email to Sandoval alluded to White House efforts to gain more control, including ousting Shulkin’s chief of staff, and said the secretary had been ‘put on notice to exit’ once the administration gets the Choice legislation through Congress.
There were other signs.
At a Jan. 17 hearing, Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran openly blamed the deadlock over Choice to Shulkin’s ever-shifting positions. ‘I am of the opinion that our inability to reach an agreement is in significant part related to your ability to speak out of both sides of your mouth, double-talk,’ Moran said. A grim Shulkin denied the accusation, but the White House was later forced to clarify its position on the bill due to lawmaker confusion.
Last month, the inspector general released a blistering report finding ethical violations in Shulkin’s trip last July to Denmark and England that mixed business with pleasure. The IG found that Shulkin’s chief of staff Vivieca Wright Simpson had doctored emails to justify his wife accompanying him at taxpayer expense. Wright Simpson retired after the report was issued.
Seizing on the report, John Ullyot, a top communications aide, and VA spokesman Curt Cashour told the Republican staff director of the House Veterans Affairs Committee that Shulkin would be out by that weekend and asked if Republicans would push for his removal.
The staff director, John Towers, told Ullyot ‘no,’ and made clear that committee Chairman Phil Roe had expressed support for Shulkin, according to a House aide familiar with the phone conversation. That aide also requested anonymity in order to discuss a sensitive internal matter. In a statement, Cashour and Ullyot deny that account, saying the call was intended instead to warn the committee that some of Shulkin’s denials of wrongdoing were unfounded.
Asked this week about Ullyot’s current leave of absence, Cashour released a statement saying, ‘there are no personnel changes to announce at the Department of Veterans Affairs.’
For now, Shulkin appears to be hanging on. At a Cabinet meeting last Thursday, Shulkin took a different seat reserved for him – next to the president.