Robert Wilkie testifies before Congress earlier this year as the Under Secretary of
Defense for Personnel and Readiness at the DoD. He now has been nominated to
become the permanent VA secretary.
DoD photo

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said last month that acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie “has done an incredible job” and, in a surprise move, nominated him for the permanent Cabinet position.

The announcement was unexpected, with Trump pointing out that Wilkie did not even know the White House was “putting his name up for nomination.”

“I’m sorry that I ruined the surprise,” Trump said at the unrelated White House event where he revealed he was nominating Wilke to become VA secretary.

Trump’s previous nominee, Rear Adm. Ronny L. Jackson, MD, withdrew his name from consideration amid allegations of misconduct shortly before his nomination late April. Jackson said the allegations were false but took himself out of contention.

Wilkie must undergo the Senate confirmation process before he can take the VA position. He has served as acting secretary since former VA Secretary David Shulkin, MD, was abruptly fired. While serving at VA, Wilkie also was the DoD under secretary for personnel and readiness, a position he has held since his nomination was confirmed by the Senate in November 2017.

In addition, Wilkie is a reserve officer in the United States Air Force Reserve. According to his biography, prior to joining the Air Force, he served in the U.S. Navy Reserve with the Joint Forces Intelligence Command, Naval Special Warfare Group Two and the Office of Naval Intelligence.

According to his biography, Wilkie served both Robert Gates and Donald Rumsfeld as assistant secretary of defense from 2005-2009 during the George W. Bush administration and was the youngest senior leader at the DoD.

Prior to his first Pentagon tour, he was special assistant to the president for national security Affairs and a senior director of the National Security Council under Condoleezza Rice. Wilkie also served as senior adviser to Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), as well as being counsel and adviser to then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS).

A graduate of the College of Naval Command and Staff, Air Command and Staff College, the U.S. Army War College and the Joint Forces Staff College, he holds personal and unit decorations, as well as the Defense Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest civilian award of the DoD.

Congressional Reaction

In response to the announcement, Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) said that, since he was appointed acting secretary of VA, he has “enjoyed my time getting to know Robert Wilkie and working alongside him to advance community care legislation through Congress.”

“I congratulate Undersecretary Wilkie on his nomination and look forward to learning more about his long-term views for the VA, including how he plans to implement the VA MISSION Act when it becomes law, as we work through the confirmation process,” Isakson added.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, said he has a “good working relationship with Acting Secretary Wilkie and I look forward to sitting down with him again to have an in-depth conversation about his vision and plan for the VA.”

Wilkie also got positive reviews from Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN), who chairs the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. Roe said he has found the acting VA secretary “to be accessible and knowledgeable since he stepped in after former VA Secretary Shulkin’s departure.”

“He has been instrumental in moving the VA MISSION Act through the House,” Roe pointed out. “While the Senate is responsible for the confirmation process, I commend President Trump for this selection and believe Acting Secretary Wilkie would be an effective permanent secretary.”

Some veterans groups also weighed in on Wilkie’s nomination. “Since March, the acting secretary has taken it upon himself to work closely with the VSO community to better understand the needs facing our nation’s heroes. With more than a decade of service as an Under Secretary for the Department of Defense, Mr. Wilkie has considerable experience navigating federal government policies,” the Disabled American Veterans association said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Vietnam Veterans of America National President John Rowan said that his organization “looks forward to an early confirmation of Robert Wilkie and to getting right down to work on the pressing business at the VA.”

At the time of the announcement, Denise Rohan, national commander of the American Legion noted that “the VA has been without Senate-confirmed Secretary for 51 days and we urge the Senate to schedule a confirmation hearing quickly.

At the end of last month, Trump elevated Peter O’Rourke, the VA’s chief of staff, to serve as acting secretary while Wilkie undergoes the approval process, according to a White House statement.