White House poised for more chaos over Veterans Affairs pick

The White House is in an increasingly familiar place: Facing down a chaotic nomination process.As the Trump ad...

Posted: May 2, 2018 10:19 AM
Updated: May 2, 2018 10:19 AM

The White House is in an increasingly familiar place: Facing down a chaotic nomination process.

As the Trump administration seeks to move past the failed nomination of Ronny Jackson to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, there's no clear front-runner to lead the massive agency and the process is far from finished, multiple sources tell CNN.

A White House official said five candidates are under consideration to lead the VA, a number that could fluctuate. The official didn't detail the names on the list, though speculation about potential candidates is rampant. West Wing staffers met Tuesday to discuss how to move forward, the official said.

The fact that there's no clear plan B -- rumored candidates range from chief of staff John Kelly to a former Florida congressman who has never served in the armed forces and has been previously passed over for the job -- suggests the administration is poised for another tumultuous nomination process even as it tries to learn lessons from the Jackson debacle.

"It is a total mess," one source close to the process told CNN.

The White House didn't respond to a CNN request for comment. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Tuesday that President Donald Trump would meet with "a number of individuals over the next couple of weeks," to name a replacement for Jackson. The White House doctor withdrew his name from consideration last week after allegations from his current and former colleagues related to his professional conduct were made public by a memo from Democrats on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

One potential candidate, former Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, will meet with Trump at the White House this week, according to two sources familiar with the plans.

But three sources familiar tell CNN there is less urgency to name a new nominee quickly because the White House is happy with the job acting secretary Robert Wilkie is doing.

"Robert Wilkie is doing such a great job," a senior administration official told CNN, giving the administration more time to thoughtfully vet a new nominee.

"I think he's very competent and was a great choice for acting secretary," another source familiar with White House thinking told CNN. "He has the right mindset and is approaching things in a very responsible way."

Wilkie, an undersecretary at the Defense Department, is taking his time to "learn the agency" the source added. Wilkie is meeting with veterans groups individually this week, the source said.

The administration is also taking steps to show it has learned lessons from Jackson's failed nomination, including getting opinions from the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. The panel will hold a confirmation hearing for an eventual nominee and the White House hopes to make sure committee members feel included in the process. A senior White House official told CNN the Senate committee has already submitted a list of prospective names to the White House for consideration.

A committee spokesperson didn't comment on such a list.

Lessons learned?

That level of engagement between the White House and Capitol Hill would mark a departure from the dysfunctional process that led to Jackson's withdrawal, as lawmakers in both parties complained about the administration's refusal to consult the committee both before and after officials submitted the nomination to the Senate.

The source said that, in hindsight, the White House should have more quickly reached out to members of Congress in support of Jackson's nomination.

Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, took the charge in raising concerns about Jackson's nomination. He released a two-page document detailing serious, but uncorroborated, allegations that the senator said were brought to the committee by Jackson's former and current colleagues. Tester and Georgia GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson, the committee's chairman, delayed Jackson's confirmation so that the committee could investigate.

"What we failed to do is tell his story and that left a blank slate that Tester could paint whatever he wanted on it," the senior White House official said, referring to the two week gap between the announcement of Jackson's nomination and Tester's move to go public with the allegations.

Isakson told CNN's Gary Tuchman Tuesday he's "sure the next nominee will be vetted in a different way and be handled in a different way by all of us."

On Wednesday, members of the Trump administration will meet with members of veterans groups at the White House, a routine gathering between the groups and White House officials, two sources tell CNN.

While the meeting's purpose is not to explicitly discuss the leadership at VA, one source at a veterans' group expected to attend said it "would be a really good relief" if a discussion about the vacancy occurred.

"That would be the first time that the White House signaled any interest in engaging (veterans service organizations) in this," the source said, adding that "nobody that I'm aware of in the veterans community was sought for advice, counsel or even input of any kind" before Jackson was nominated.

Potential candidates

Multiple sources told CNN that Trump had floated to allies the possibility of naming White House chief of staff John Kelly to run the VA, a move the White House has flatly denied but is a suggestion that has intrigued the President.

The idea that Kelly could move from chief of staff to leading the sprawling VA is relatively new. Trump and Kelly huddled frequently earlier this spring as the President prepared to oust former secretary David Shulkin, trying to come up with someone to nominate as a successor, sources familiar with their meetings told CNN.

A Kelly move to the VA wasn't among the scenarios raised at that time, the source said. If Trump asked Kelly to go to Veterans Affairs, several people believe he would do so out of a sense of duty.

Sanders told reporters Tuesday that Kelly was not being considered, and that "both the President and the Chief of Staff are very happy with the position he holds."

Miller, a former Republican congressman from Florida who chaired the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, is another significant name in the mix, multiple sources inside and outside the White House told CNN. While Trump considered Miller for the position last year, officials ultimately ruled against the pick because he lacks a military background and past secretaries have typically been veterans.

As the leader of the House veterans panel, Miller was a sharp critic of the VA under the Obama administration and oversaw a number of tense hearings that focused on the agency's failings. Miller, who was instrumental in coming up with the Trump campaign's VA reform plan, has been a lobbyist since retiring from the House last year.

"There are a lot of people pushing Jeff Miller," said one source close to the White House. "I do know that there are people inside the White House who are receptive to it."

Miller declined to comment.

A senior administration official who has spoken to Trump about the search said Trump was not considering either Kelly or Miller -- though that didn't mean people on staff weren't considering it -- and that the President hasn't expressed a preference for any of the names being floated.

A White House aide said two other names in the mix for VA secretary are Ike Perlmutter, CEO of Marvel Entertainment, and Toby Cosgrove, former CEO of the Cleveland Clinic. But several aides acknowledged the search remains relatively open because Trump, ultimately, could surprise staffers at any moment with the selection of any name in contention -- or an outside pick of his own design.

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