Trump's VA pick likely to be confirmed: 5 things to know about his Senate hearing

Robert Wilkie, President Donald Trump's nominee for Secretary of Veterans Affairs, faced questioning June 27 from the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

Mr. Wilkie has been the acting VA secretary since David Shulkin, MD, left the role. He is also the undersecretary for personnel and readiness in the Defense Department. Here are five key takeaways from his hearing:

1. The senators indicated they are ready to confirm Mr. Wilkie. Senators from both sides of the aisle noted they are in support of Mr. Wilkie's confirmation throughout the hearing. "I, as others, believe you are going to be confirmed," said Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the committee's ranking Democrat. Before the Senate can vote, Mr. Wilkie must respond to senators' written questions.

2. Mr. Wilkie said he opposes privatization of the VA and will contradict the president. In his time as acting VA secretary, Mr. Wilkie said, "I experienced what can never be duplicated in the private sector — the communal aspect of VA. What does that mean? It means that when our veterans walk into any VA facility they converse with men and women who speak the unique language of military service." In further questioning with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Mr. Wilkie said, "My commitment to you is I will oppose efforts to privatize the VA."

When questioned by Mr. Tester about whether he would disagree with President Trump if he believed it was best for veterans, Mr. Wilkie said he felt he had the autonomy to do so. This was especially relevant to the committee, as Mr. Wilkie's predecessor, Dr. Shulkin, indicated he felt he was let go for opposing the president on privatization.

3. He faced a lot of questioning about the VA's nearly $16 billion EHR modernization project, which includes a $10 billion contract with Cerner. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., questioned Mr. Wilkie about the DOD's bumpy EHR rollout and wanted to know how he will ensure the same mistakes are not made again in the VA. Mr. Wilkie said he plans to test the systems thoroughly before going online. He said a similar process was used to root out issues in the DOD's MHS Genesis project. "I believe that many of those problems that they were experiencing have been remedied because they found the kinks when they did the beta testing," he said.

4. Mr. Wilkie plans to quickly fill the VA's leadership vacuum. Senators also wanted to know how Mr. Wilkie would accomplish the Cerner implementation due to the lack of leadership within the VA. As Mr. Tester pointed out, the VA lacks a deputy secretary, an undersecretary for health, a deputy undersecretary, an assistant secretary in the Office of Information and Technology, and a deputy in OIT. Mr. Tester said, "It's tough to do an oversight hearing on the VA right now because there's nobody to hold accountable." Though Mr. Wilkie doesn't have anyone in mind yet for the roles, he pledged to "move as rapidly as I can if confirmed to get those people in place."

5. Mr. Wilkie addressed his past work as support for controversial politicians. On the eve of his hearing, The Washington Post reported that Mr. Wilkie had a "willingness to fight on the front lines of his bosses' culture wars." These bosses included former Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who denounced Martin Luther King Jr., made disparaging remarks about gay people and supported the Confederate flag, and former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who eventually lost his post for supporting a segregationist campaign. Mr. Wilkie also assisted Mr. Lott in rebutting a proposal to ensure equal pay for women, according to The Washington Post.

Mr. Wilkie portrayed these events as part of his job as an aide and in the past. In response, Mr. Wilkie said, "I will say, and I say it respectfully, I welcome a scrutiny of my entire record. The Washington Post seemed to stop at my record about 25 years ago. If I had been what The Washington Post implied, I don't think I would have been able to work for Condoleezza Rice, or Bob Gates or Jim Mattis."

He told Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, he supported equal pay for women, and did not support requiring women to finish high school to receive welfare, a provision included in Mr. Lott's rebuttal.

He said he did not support the Confederate flag, but believed in honoring all veterans. "The broader issue of the flag, to address what The Washington Post said, I stopped doing many of those things at a time when that issue became divisive," Mr. Wilkie said.

Watch the full hearing here.


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