It’s a brave new world in 2018. President Donald Trump’s administration has been largely characterized by the same freewheeling, no-fucks-given bravado of the 2016 election cycle: Twitter rants are daily fodder for the news cycle, lurid stories of old trysts with adult film stars (somehow) merit the “60 Minutes” treatment, and hardly a week goes by without a cabinet member being fired or humiliated or both.
Speaking of which, the current Veterans Affairs secretary, David Shulkin, is hanging onto his job by a 140-character thread, and speculation’s running hot on who might replace him. (Here’s a quick rundown on why people are talking about Shulkin like a dead man walking. It’s a whole big thing.) Enter Fox & Friends cable news host Pete Hegseth, a 37-year-old veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, whose name keeps popping up on short lists as a possible Shulkin replacement.
What are Hegseth’s qualifications to man the second largest federal agency, its $186 billion budget, some 360,000 employees, and 9 million veterans seeking care? Here’s a pro-con chart on the Princeton-produced grunt being eyed to lead the VA:
- Hegseth is demonstrably not a chicken hawk, like a number of his prospective Trump admin peers. While running the political group Vets For Freedom between 2007 and 2012, Hegseth pushed for an increased troop presence in Iraq — but at least in banging the war drums, he was playing a tune he learned downrange, and not just in an Ivy League classroom or network TV studio.
- He was a fine officer. Hegseth, who joined the Army National Guard as an infantry officer in 2003 and left as a major in 2014, served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay. He earned two Bronze Stars, a pair of Army Commendation Medals, and both the expert infantryman and combat infantryman badges, according to American Public Media.
- He’s experienced with money. After graduating from Princeton in 2004, Hegseth took an equity analyst job in the Manhattan offices of Bear Stearns, the global investment bank; even in Iraq in 2006, he touted his experience as a “New York banker.” (Two years later, Bear Stearns’ total collapse helped spur the Great Recession; Hegseth’s LinkedIn account now notes that he only worked there for about seven months between 2004 and 2006.) But he also got a lot of hands-on experience with money when he came to Washington to run Vets for Freedom, a Republican-tied advocacy group that paid him a six-figure salary and was funded largely by casino billionaire and GOP kingmaker Sheldon Adelson. Hegseth also formed a PAC that spent a third of its donations on Christmas parties and personal reimbursements to him, and when he took the helm at Concerned Veterans for America, he hired his brother, a recent college grad, into a $70,000-a-year job with the group. Give it up: The man knows money!
- He already has friends in the VA. After his time at Vets For Freedom, Hegseth served as the CEO of CVA from 2012 to 2015. That’s the same Koch brothers-backed conservative group that has been accused by rivals of pushing a privatization agenda from within the VA, which they vehemently deny. Even if Hegseth doesn’t push to privatize, he certainly brings conservative cred to the country’s second biggest public institution, and a familiarity with many of the Trump administration’s past and current appointees at VA.
- Once threw an axe and hit a man. You read that correctly. During a June 14, 2015, Fox & Friends segment, Hegseth was promoting an upcoming sports event by throwing axes at a target, but missed his mark and accidentally hit a man in the arm. The real kicker? The guy who took an axe to the shoulder was a member of the Army’s Hellcats Marching Band.
- Poor axe thrower. Remember that time Hegseth accidentally hit a guy with an axe?
- Leaves the future of the Veterans Health Administration very much in doubt. Compared to Shulkin, who has taken flak for being too on board with privatizing aspects of the Veterans Health Administration, Hegseth’s views are considered by many to be extreme. “Ultimately, the most important aspect” of fixing VA, Hegseth told Fox viewers after Trump’s election, “is giving veterans a choice in a timely matter to either go to a VA facility or go to a private provider outside of the VA if they need to. That creates the competition that a hospital like this is gonna need if it’s gonna start treating veterans like customers as opposed to, like, numbers.” Shulkin’s critics have accused the current VA chief of not expanding private care for vets fast enough; but it’s not clear whether doing that would actually boost VA’s competitiveness, or starve it of resources. Nor is it clear that private contract bidders have the full resources to address VA-enrolled patients’ traumatic brain injuries; amputations; post-traumatic stress disorder; military sexual trauma; severe burns; anxiety; depression; substance abuse disorder; and chronic pain.
- He’d have a hell of a rough time at a Senate confirmation hearing. Even though Hegseth has shown considerable interest in being VA secretary — he interviewed for the post three times after Trump was elected — his Senate confirmation would be a roller-coaster. His views on privatization have raised alarm among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and drawn the ire of major veterans service organizations in DC. Then there are the divorces, reported infidelities, and children born with Fox TV producers out of wedlock — not career-killers, mind you, but curious behavior in a man who has worked with the Family Research Council, preached family values, written about the ills of “radical, leftist” feminism, and pined for “a return of the acceptability of the ‘homemaker’ vocation.”