WASHINGTON (AP) — Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, under fire for ethics violations, said Thursday that he has no intention of leaving his job even as the White House hinted at the possibility of "personnel changes" to lead the beleaguered agency.
Speaking at a budget hearing, Shulkin expressed regret for "distractions" that have shifted attention from his efforts to fix veterans' health care and pledged to put the government's second largest department back on track.
Shulkin, the lone Obama administration holdover in Trump's Cabinet, praised the congressional oversight committees for largely standing behind him to fix the Department of Veterans Affairs, compared to critics he said were "more interested in politics."
"With all of the distractions that are happening in Washington and all the distractions in VA, the events that have happened should remind us all about why it's so important that we're doing what we're doing today to get this budget right and get VA on track," he told a House appropriations subcommittee. "I came here for one reason and that is to improve the lives of veterans."
Addressing a government investigation underway into his alleged use of security detail for personal errands, Shulkin denied that he was using the taxpayer-paid armed guards any differently from other members of the Trump Cabinet. "I publicly acknowledge the distraction is something I deeply regret," he said.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to offer an endorsement of Shulkin om Thursday. She said President Donald Trump believes the nation's veterans are being generally well-served but the White House was actively studying ways to improve the VA, such as possible changes "at the top level."
"The president has a large number of individuals that are working hard to make sure that the VA is helping veterans at the best level possible," she said. "I can tell you that everyday we're looking for how we can better the system, whether it's through policy changes or personnel changes, not just at the top level but across the board."
Amid the controversies swirling around him, the White House in recent days has floated the name of Energy Secretary Rick Perry as a replacement. But Perry said Wednesday he had no interest in the job.
Rumors also circulated that conservative "Fox & Friends" contributor Pete Hegseth might be tapped for the job. Trump once seriously considered Hegseth, a former military officer and former CEO of the conservative Concerned Veterans for America, for the position.
A person familiar with Hegseth's thinking told the AP late Wednesday that if offered the position, Hegseth would take a "hard look." The person said that when Trump considered Hegseth for the post in late 2016 before settling on Shulkin, Hegseth told Trump he would "of course" accept, and Hegseth's stance hasn't changed since. The source demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the private conversation.
Two administration officials told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Shulkin's position is precarious and that he could be out of a job within the week, but they cautioned that nothing was finalized. Those officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive personnel matter.
Shulkin has faced several investigations, including a bruising VA watchdog report that found ethics violations in connection with a trip to Europe with his wife last summer. In recent weeks, Shulkin has faced an insurgency within his department and fresh allegations that he used a member of his security detail to run personal errands.
The VA inspector general is looking into a complaint by a member of Shulkin's 24-7 security detail that he was asked to accompany the secretary to a Home Depot and carry furniture items into his home, according to two people familiar with the allegation who requested anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
The uncertainty over Shulkin's status has left the VA, which employs 360,000 people, virtually paralyzed, with members of Congress confused over who's in charge and what's being done to improve care for 9 million military veterans in more than 1,700 government-run health facilities. On Wednesday, Republican Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona became the second lawmaker to call for Shulkin's resignation, joining House Veterans Affairs Committee member Mike Coffman, R-Colo., in chastising a "culture of inefficiency and complacency" within a "broken VA system."
In an AP interview Thursday, Coffman noted that Shulkin has yet to admit he did anything wrong after the VA inspector general concluded that he had improperly accepted Wimbledon tennis tickets and that his then chief of staff had doctored emails to justify his wife traveling to Europe with him at taxpayer expense. Shulkin is among several Cabinet secretaries who have been investigated for pricey travel.
"He absolutely, fundamentally was not honest and was not transparent," Coffman said. "When other Cabinet members have been exposed on the same issues, they just came forward with it and said 'Yes, I made a mistake.'"
"We need somebody who's going to be very aggressive in cleaning up the VA, and there's absolutely no way that he has the moral authority or the leadership to do that," Coffman said.
Still, for the most part, Republican and Democratic lawmakers were standing behind Shulkin, viewing him as the department's best guardian to fend off Trump administration efforts to privatize VA care.
Associated Press writers Catherine Lucey, Ken Thomas, Jonathan Lemire, Laurie Kellman, Matthew Daly and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.
Follow Yen on Twitter at https://twitter.com/hopeyen1 and Miller at http://twitter.com/@ZekeJMiller