WASHINGTON (CN) – President Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of veterans affairs defended his former enthusiasm for Confederate history, vowing Wednesday that he would oversee the department with an eye for all veterans, including minorities and women, if confirmed.
Robert Wilkie has served as acting head of the Department of Veterans Affairs since President Trump fired former Secretary David Shulkin in March following a report from the agency’s inspector general of multiple ethics violations, including Shulkin’s use of taxpayer funds for a trip to Europe and his acceptance of improper gifts.
Then Shulkin’s replacement, White House physician Ronny Jackson, withdrew his nomination amid allegations he harassed several women, sometimes drunkenly.
Wilkie told senators he is eager to resolve the instability at the department, assuring them his former membership with Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group that preserves Confederate memorials, wouldn’t upset that stability.
“I will say it and I will say it respectfully, I welcome the scrutiny of my entire record,” he said at his nomination hearing.
Wilkie said a Washington Post report mentioning his involvement with the controversial group was incomplete and failed to account for the last 18 years of his career.
He reminded senators that the Department of the Army sanctioned two of the three confederate memorial events he attended, and the Department of Defense approved of the third.
He also said one event featured President Barack Obama laying a wreath honoring veterans on both sides of the Civil War.
“I stopped doing these things when the issue became divisive,” he said.
Senators also questioned edits Wilkie made on legislation during his tenure as floor manager for former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.
Senator Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, called an edit to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act requiring women to finish high school before they could receive welfare “condescending.”
Wilkie said he pointed the issue out for Lott, who “wanted to recognize American women who chose to stay at home.”
But for him, the condition “would never enter my mind,” he said.
Senators also grilled him on the potential privatization of the VA.
Trump has pushed for privatization despite opposition from groups like the Veterans for Foreign Wars.
Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, told Wilkie veterans in his constituency worry over the prospect of privatization when resources are already spread thin at the VA.
Pushing veteran services to outside providers means money leaves the VA, Sanders said.
“The sentiment isn’t in favor of public or government-run health care, but the VA is a socialized health care system,” Sanders said.
“I don’t believe in the privatization of the VA,” Wilkie said.
He will, however, shake off the “complacency” there so services for veterans as well as VA employees improve, he said.
A Merit Systems Protection Board Survey released in March found the VA was the worst federal agency on record for instances of sexual harassment, but Wilkie said he has already implemented new harassment policies.
The rollout of a new electronic health records system is also on his priority list, although he confessed progress may be incremental. A similar records platform to that used at the Defense Department will also be used by the VA, he said.
That rollout was not without hiccups, he admitted, but he wouldn’t unleash the record system in full until after testing.
“Vets injured before May 7, 1975 will see a full accounting of their records go digital by 2019; those injured after the end of the Vietnam War will have access by 2022,” he said.
The size and complexity of the VA means a “blunderbuss approach will not work” when it comes to addressing department inefficiencies that negatively affect veterans, Wilkie said.
Senator Jon Tester, D-Montana, reminded Wilkie that, as secretary, “the buck stops with you.”
“Take cues from veterans and do what you think is right even if political forces threaten your job,” Tester added. “I want you to succeed. This post requires integrity and honesty. Leading this nation’s largest health care system is no small task.”
“My life changed when my father returned from his second tour in Vietnam,” Wilkie said. “When he came home, after a year in Army hospitals, he weighed less than half of what he did when he left. I watched the agonizing recovery and that experience was on my mind when I was asked to come to the VA.”