Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie is reportedly pushing an “internal campaign” to be the next secretary of defense, the Washington Post reported.
- According to interviews with at least one White House official, and another person familiar with the matter, who spoke to the Washington Post on the condition of anonymity, Wilkie has thrown his hat in the ring to replace James Mattis as the military's top dog.
- Mattis resigned in December, following a disagreement with President Donald Trump over the decision to abruptly withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.
- In Mattis' absence, Patrick Shanahan has taken over as acting secretary of defense. A former Boeing executive, Shanahan is likely to face tough questions at an upcoming Senate Armed Services Committee hearing about whether or not he'll hew to Trump's foreign policy decisions, or push back.
- Wilkie for his part, has spent a lot of time in and around the U.S. military. The son of a war-wounded veteran, Wilkie previously remarked that he “was born in khaki diapers and I think my attitudes toward that and leadership flow from having been in that world my entire life.” Additionally, he served as a Navy reservist from 1997 to 2008, and is currently a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve, as Task & Purpose previously reported.
- Wilkie served as the undersecretary of defense for personnel readiness at the Pentagon, prior to coming to the VA last year, where he's responsible for leading more than 420,000 full-time employees — an all time high for the department, Curt Cashour, the VA press secretary told Task & Purpose.
- “Secretary Wilkie remains 100 percent focused on his job as VA secretary,” Cashour told Task & Purpose via email. “He is proud to serve the veterans of this country and is honored to be a part of the record pace of reform at the department under President Trump's leadership. Secretary Wilkie continues to work tirelessly to help deliver high quality care and benefits to those who have sacrificed for our country.”
- Should the rumors prove true, and Wilkie is seeking to leave the VA for greener pastures at the Pentagon, it could plunge the department back into uncertainty should he get the job.
- Continuity of leadership is key for an agency like the VA, which “is a giant, lumbering vessel that requires a lot of time and energy to right its course,” Griffin Anderson, a spokesman for the Democrats on the House Veteran Affairs Committee, told Task & Purpose last March. “To say the least, it takes a lot of effort, from a lot of people, to get it moving in the direction you want it to go. And the only way you're going to be able to do that successfully is if you have people who know how to drive it.”
- On the flip side, should Shanahan find himself nominated as secretary of defense, rather than Wilkie, or some other individual no one's heard of yet, it's likely he'd face some pointed questions on whether or not he has the chops, and background, to balance foreign policy concerns with a sprawling bureaucracy charged with handling America's longest war, maintaining the readiness of its various branches, equipping, arming, supporting, and supplying them, and in general, overseeing a massive defense apparatus.