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Trump administration dials back Shulkin firing rumors — for now

President Donald Trump may be itching to fire him, but Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin has the support of GOP lawmakers and veterans, and the lack of a preferred successor may keep him at the agency’s helm at least for now.

Trump’s consternation with Shulkin bubbled over during a Monday meeting with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, during which the president asked Perry if he wanted Shulkin’s job. The takedown came as the president was planning Rex Tillerson’s ouster from the State Department, prompting speculation that a major Cabinet shakeup was in the works.

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Before his angry outburst, the mercurial president personally was pushing legislation on Shulkin’s behalf and the White House was publicly defending the VA secretary. One reason: Veterans, a key bloc of political support for Trump, have circled the wagons to protect Shulkin, as have leading Republicans in Congress. And rumors that Shulkin mismanaged his security detail are premature at best, POLITICO has learned.

With the policy and political stakes high, administration officials and others on Wednesday were tamping down rumors of Shulkin’s imminent dismissal.

“There are no personnel changes to announce at the Department of Veterans Affairs,” agency spokesman Curt Cashour said in a written statement. “President Trump has made clear that he expects the department’s sole focus to be on providing quality care to America’s veterans who have sacrificed to keep this country free and safe.”

A Perry spokesman on Wednesday denied reports that Trump had offered the Energy secretary the top VA job. Perry told reporters he expected to stay at Energy “until the foreseeable future.”

Shulkin has been under fire since February, when the agency’s inspector general reported that his then-chief of staff doctored an email so that taxpayers would pick up the tab for the secretary’s wife to accompany him on a 10-day trip to Europe. Amid calls for his resignation, Shulkin suggested the email was sent by a hacker and launched an internal investigation into “subversion” within the VA’s ranks. He has repaid the cost of his wife’s flights.

Last week, Shulkin was summoned to the West Wing, where chief of staff John Kelly warned him to stop talking to the media without White House permission. In the Oval Office, Trump quizzed Shulkin about progress on legislation to expand veterans‘ access to private doctors. Those meetings came amid press reports that the VA’s inspector general was about to drop a second damning report, this time over rumors that Shulkin used his security detail to help him with personal errands.

No such report is imminent and it’s not evident that investigators have uncovered any wrongdoing, a person familiar with the IG’s work told POLITICO. Inspectors have been asking questions about Shulkin’s security detail but could be months away from releasing any findings, the person said.

A spokesman for Inspector General Michael Missal said the office does not confirm or deny the existence of investigations.

Since the February inspector general report, which also faulted Shulkin for improperly accepting free Wimbledon tickets, the VA’s new chief of staff, Peter O’Rourke, with the blessing of the White House, has been meeting with staffers suspected of undermining the secretary.

The tug of war over Shulkin is a proxy for another battle being fought inside the agency, where some Trump political appointees, including White House liaison Jake Leinenkugel and public affairs chief John Ullyot, are pushing for less government involvement in medical care for former service members. Shulkin and most veterans service organizations are fiercely opposed to privatization of the system, which Perry, by contrast, has endorsed.

Removing Shulkin now could be disruptive to other agency initiatives that have Trump’s backing, however. The VA, for example, is in the midst of overhauling its health technology infrastructure and shepherding legislation from Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) that would make it easier for veterans to see private doctors but stop short of privatizing the system.

Shulkin’s team also is negotiating a $10 billion to $15 billion contract that would join the VA and Department of Defense medical records under a single technological umbrella. If successful, the effort could serve as a model for the country’s broader health care system.

Trump has limited options when it comes to replacing Shulkin, a political moderate and former hospital executive who is the only Obama administration holdover in his Cabinet. Shulkin has no obvious successors, and Trump is unhappy with the VA’s second in command, Thomas Bowman, who would inherit the top slot temporarily if Shulkin were ousted.

Bowman is said to be opposed to the administration’s plan to expand the VA’s use of private health care providers. He, too, was recently summoned to the White House, where he got a dressing down from the Office of Presidential Personnel.

It was a study in mixed messages. As the secretary and his deputy were getting schooled at the White House, Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders was defending Shulkin on live television.

“Secretary Shulkin has done a great job,” Sanders told reporters March 7. “We're going to continue to do everything we can to protect the veterans and helps veterans in this country. It's something that the president talked about extensively on the campaign and has directed Director Shulkin to take an aggressive approach, and he's done that since becoming secretary.”

Shulkin also continues to win endorsements from key Republicans, including Veterans’ Affairs committee chairmen Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) and Isakson.

“Shulkin has done a bang-up job,” Roe said Wednesday. “I would certainly hate to see him leave that position. We have a great working relationship. He understands the needs of the veterans, and he understands the VA — like I understand the VA — from the examining room up.”

Trump personally called Isakson last week to discuss his VA health care bill, which was drafted with Shulkin’s help. Trump has endorsed the legislation, which would make it easier for service members to get health care from private providers outside the VA system. The bill is ready for a floor vote, an Isakson aide told POLITICO.

Isakson continues to have confidence in the secretary, the aide said. “They’ve made a lot of progress. It would be a shame to let infighting get in the way of what we’ve accomplished.”

Eliana Johnson and Andrew Restuccia contributed to this report.

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