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Trump announces he will nominate acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie to become department's permanent leader

Robert Wilkie, the acting secretary of veterans affairs, at the White House in Washington, May 17, 2018. President Donald Trump announced on Friday that he intended to nominate Wilkie to take over the sprawling Department of Veterans Affairs, a move that the president said would surprise Wilkie because he was learning about it only as it was being revealed. (Doug Mills/The New York Times/Copyright 2018)

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump announced Friday that he plans to nominate Department of Veterans Affairs Acting Secretary Robert Wilkie to become the department's permanent leader, noting that the decision may come as a surprise to Wilkie.

"I'll be informing him in a little while - he doesn't know this yet - that we're going to be putting his name up for nomination to be secretary of the veterans administration," Trump said at a Friday morning event at the White House that Wilkie attended. The president added that Wilkie has done "an incredible job" as the acting secretary.

As the crowd applauded the announcement, Wilkie stood to shake the president's hand, nodding his head as he did so. Wilkie then received a standing ovation.

"Fantastic," Trump said. "I'm sorry that I ruined the surprise."

The president's surprise announcement came nearly two months after he named Wilkie, 55, who has been serving as the Defense Department's undersecretary for personnel and readiness, to succeed David Shulkin.

The nomination comes at a precarious point for the government's second-largest agency, which Trump promised during his campaign he would reform to serve veterans faster and better.

Trump fired Shulkin in late March in a tweet after months of tension over a business trip he took to Europe and whether his views on outsourcing medical care for veterans to private doctors were in line with the policies of the White House which has advocated more aggressively for private-sector options than Shulkin did.

Trump then roiled the Senate with his nomination of Ronny Jackson, the White House physician who gave him a glowing review after his annual physical but seemed ill-prepared to lead the massive agency.

Jackson was forced to withdraw his name from consideration in late April after his colleagues and subordinates in the White House medical unit he led told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee staff of a history of misconduct, including drinking on the job, sloppy record-keeping and a loose dispensing of prescription drugs.

His withdrawal embarrassed the White House, raising questions about its vetting process for top-level jobs. Wilkie serves as a safe choice, given that the Senate unanimously approved his nomination to the Defense post last year.

Wilkie is the son of an Army artillery commander who was wounded in combat. He served as an intelligence officer in the Navy before joining the Air Force Reserve and has worked as a senior leader at the Pentagon under former defense secretaries Robert Gates and Donald Rumsfeld.

The Fayetteville, North Carolina, native is well-known on the Hill as a longtime Senate staffer who worked for former Sens. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., Trent Lott, R-Miss., and most recently for Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., for whom Wilkie served as senior adviser.

Others who had reportedly been in the mix for the VA job include former Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who chaired the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs before his retirement from Capitol Hill last year, and Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., an Army veteran who told reporters earlier this week that it's an "amazing honor" to be named as a potential candidate to lead VA without specifically confirming he was under consideration.

In a short video address last month to VA's 360,000 employees, Wilkie implored staff to improve internal communication so the agency is best positioned to address the needs of the veterans it serves.

VA faces myriad challenges that include the departure in recent months of dozen of senior leaders who had grown disenchanted with the agency's internal politics.

Late Thursday Wilkie announced that VA signed a multibillion dollar, groundbreaking deal to bring on a new electronic medical record system to sync veterans' VA records not just with the Department of Defense but with an increasing number of private providers.

Legislation that would expand the growing private care program is expected to pass the Senate next week following House approval this week. Private care has become a controversial policy issue, and if he is confirmed, Wilkie will be responsible for implementing the new law and the rules that govern when veterans can go outside the system.

Authors information: Jenna Johnson is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post. Lisa Rein covers federal agencies and the management of government in the Trump adminstration. The Washington Post's Emily Thibodeaux-Wax contributed to this report.

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