WASHINGTON (AP) — In a surprise announcement that caught the candidate off-guard, President Donald Trump said Friday he'll nominate acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie to permanently lead the beleaguered department.
Trump spilled the news about Wilkie at a White House event on prison reform as he introduced Cabinet members in attendance. When Trump got to Wilkie, he said, "I'll be informing him in a little while — he doesn't know this yet — that we're going to be putting his name up for nomination to be secretary."
Trump added, "I'm sorry that I ruined the surprise."
The president had already appeared impressed with Wilkie, saying publicly last month that he's been doing a "great job" at VA. On Friday, Trump upped his assessment of Wilkie's job performance to "incredible job."
Wilkie has led the VA since Trump fired David Shulkin in March amid an ethics scandal and mounting rebellion within the agency. Trump then turned to Ronny Jackson, the Navy doctor who had been his personal physician, but Jackson abruptly withdrew last month amid allegations about his professionalism.
Wilkie, 55, is a former Pentagon undersecretary for personnel and readiness who oversaw a new policy aimed at stemming harassment in the military after an online nude-photo sharing scandal rocked the Marine Corps. The Senate confirmed him unanimously for the post.
At the VA, Wilkie has sought to rebuild morale at a department beset with inner turmoil and rebellion over Trump's push to expand access to private care. On Thursday, he announced a major $10 billion contract with Cerner Corp. to overhaul electronic health records for millions of veterans, a 10-year project that aims to improve mental health care and ease access to private providers.
Wilkie's selection reflects Trump's desire to have a steady hand leading the government's second-largest department following the abrupt withdrawal by Jackson, who had never managed a large workforce. The Pentagon is the government's largest department, with more than 700,000 employees.
Veterans groups expressed support for the nomination.
Garry Augustine, executive director of Disabled American Veterans' Washington headquarters, said he considered it a "good sign" that Wilkie seemed receptive to hearing from veterans' service organizations.
"We're optimistic that we'll be able to work with him and his staff," Augustine said. "He's doing what he needs to do to get up to speed."
Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said veterans "need a committed, focused leader who will always put veterans above politics." He said Wilkie "will have to prove to millions of veterans nationwide that he is up to this mammoth, sacred leadership task."
Dan Caldwell, executive director of the conservative Concerned Veterans for America, called Wilkie an "outstanding choice."
"He is somebody who has shown that he can manage the department in a time of immense change," Caldwell said. "He unequivocally supports the president's agenda for reforming the VA and we think that he will be on the same page as the White House."
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said he enjoyed working with Wilkie in his acting capacity. He did not announce a date for Wilkie's confirmation hearing.
Trump has sought an aggressive expansion of the Choice program to make it easier for veterans to see private doctors outside the VA system at government expense. A proposal is nearing passage in Congress, with a Senate vote slated for next week, but its scope will be determined in part on how the next VA secretary implements provisions that loosen restrictions on when a veteran can see a private doctor if he or she feels dissatisfied with VA health care.
The VA faces numerous problems demanding immediate attention, including the multibillion-dollar revamp of electronic medical records — which lawmakers fear will prove too costly and wasteful — and a pending budget shortfall in the Choice program.
Wilkie, an Air Force and Navy veteran, and son of an Army artillery commander, had strong backing from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and White House chief of staff John Kelly, a retired Marine. He is seen as a skilled manager with more defense expertise than some other candidates with more political experience, such as former Rep. Jeff Miller, who chaired the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Wilkie served President George W. Bush as an assistant secretary of defense. He also served as senior adviser to Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., before becoming a Pentagon undersecretary in 2017.
Jackson, Trump's previous nominee, is a career military doctor lacking significant management experience. While he was well-liked, even many Republicans questioned his ability to lead the VA.
After Jackson withdrew, White House officials said Trump planned to evaluate his next nominee more thoroughly. Wilkie was among several candidates White House staff interviewed.
Trump had indicated he intended to pick someone with a more political background, hoping such a person would better navigate the turbulent confirmation process in a narrowly divided Senate. Wilkie has experience shepherding two defense secretaries through Senate confirmation.
Associated Press writers Ken Thomas and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.
This story corrects Wilkie's age to 55, not 56.