The nation’s leading veterans groups on Wednesday formally requested that President Donald Trump fire Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie immediately from his Cabinet post, saying that the VA administrator “no longer has the trust or confidence of America’s veterans.”
The letter — signed by leaders from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, AMVETS and Vietnam Veterans of America — is the latest damning assessment of Wilkie’s ability shepherd the department following the release of an inspector general report last week criticizing his handling of a sexual assault allegation late last year.
“The findings make clear that the secretary himself established a defensive posture and made decisions to personally disparage the veteran and circumvent the subsequent IG investigation,” the letter states.
“This is a tremendous breach of trust among veterans, and Secretary Wilkie must be held accountable. His actions not only threaten to deter veterans from seeking care at VA, but also undermine the efforts of VA staff who have been working to bring an end to sexual harassment throughout the department.”
White House officials in recent days have declined comment on the report and declined to answer if the president still has faith in Wilkie.
Since the report’s release, 21 lawmakers have also called for Wilkie’s removal, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif.; and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee members Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii.
No Republicans have publicly called for Wilkie’s firing.
In response to the calls for Wilkie’s ouster, VA press secretary Christina Noel said that the secretary “has led VA to achieve landmark improvements in veterans’ trust, quality of care and employee satisfaction. He will continue to lead the department, including its historic response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
At issue is Wilkie’s response to allegations in September 2019 from a staffer on Takano’s committee — Navy reservist Andrea Goldstein — who alleged she was assaulted and verbally abused by a man in a public area of the Washington D.C. VA medical center while she was visiting the hospital.
The VA Secretary promised a full, independent investigation into the allegations. However, the IG report released Dec. 10 said Wilkie and other senior leaders instead worked to discredit Goldstein, investigating her background and spreading rumors about her honesty.
Wilkie accused both Takano and the Inspector General of politicizing the investigation, and of searching for ways to smear VA leadership despite finding no evidence of crimes. In a statement last week, Wilkie criticized the Inspector General’s office as “”more dedicated to scoring political points than improving the department.”
The letter from the so-called “big six” veterans service organizations noted that in past surveys, one in four women veterans have reported experiencing some form of sexual assault or harassment within VA.
“Solving this problem takes strong and committed leadership, and we no longer believe Secretary Wilkie is capable of leading this charge or performing his duties in the best interest of veterans,” the group wrote.
If Trump opts not to fire Wilkie, the VA Secretary is still expected to depart the job in the next month. President-elect Joe Biden has already announced former White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough as his pick to be the next VA Secretary, and is not expected to retain Wilkie as a bridge administrator until McDonough’s confirmation.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.