President Donald Trump, fresh off replacing his secretary of state and CIA director, is considering firing his secretary of Veterans Affairs and installing Energy Secretary Rick Perry in the post, according to two people close to the White House.
Trump did not make a formal offer to Perry when the two men met on Monday. But the people said the president has grown impatient with the department’s current secretary, Dr. David Shulkin, and may want to replace him with someone already in his Cabinet.
It was unclear if Perry, who was an Air Force pilot before entering politics, would accept the change in position if Trump offered it, or if Trump had a successor in mind to lead the Energy Department.
The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment, nor did Shulkin.
The conversation follows weeks of bitter infighting at the Veterans Affairs Department, where Shulkin has faced off in a rare public spat with a prominent group of Trump administration appointees who want to see him removed from office. The dispute goes beyond personality to a struggle over how far and how fast to privatize health care under the VA system.
It also took place as Trump was preparing to oust his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. The president announced that decision Tuesday and said he would replace Tillerson with Mike Pompeo, the CIA director. It suggests that Trump may be interested in a more ambitious realignment of his year-old administration than initially thought.
A politically moderate former hospital executive who also served in the Obama administration, Shulkin had been one of Trump’s most popular Cabinet secretaries, both in the White House and on Capitol Hill. At a time when Trump was struggling to find legislative victories, Shulkin and Congress’ veterans committees delivered a string of popular, bipartisan bills to the president’s desk.
And Trump has publicly showered Shulkin with praise. At a signing ceremony for one of those bills in June, Trump said his secretary did not have to worry about hearing the president’s old reality-show catchphrase, “You’re fired.”
“We’ll never have to use those words on our David,” Trump said, pointing his finger at the secretary like a pistol. “We will never use those words on you, that’s for sure.”
That tenor began to change in recent months, as Shulkin increasingly butted heads with conservative Trump administration officials over one of the White House’s top policy priorities for the department: the expansion of government-subsidized private health care for veterans, outside the government-run VA health system.
The conservatives came to feel that Shulkin, who advocated a moderate rewrite of the current private care programs, was an obstacle to their goal.
The dispute spilled into public over the last month, following a scathing report by department’s inspector general on a business trip Shulkin took to Britain and Denmark last year. The report found “serious derelictions” related to the trip and concluded that the secretary spent much of it sightseeing and improperly accepted a gift of Wimbledon tickets.
The report in hand, Shulkin’s critics in the White House and the department — including his two top communications deputies — worked behind the scenes to try to hasten his ouster. Shulkin, who disputed the report’s findings, went public with fears that appointees were “trying to undermine the department from within.” He iced out those he viewed as a threat and essentially became his own one-person press office.
As recently as last week, after a series of meetings with John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, Shulkin publicly declared victory, hinting that he had the White House’s support to remove officials battling him.
The secretary appeared to be regaining his footing. He sat at Trump’s side during a Cabinet meeting, and the two men together called Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, to pledge their support for his more moderate health care legislation, according to a congressional aide briefed on the call. The secretary maintains the support of top Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.
But top White House officials have only become more irked with the secretary’s penchant for publicly discussing internal politics, and Trump has begun searching for a replacement.
Perry is seen as a more pliant figure for the Veterans Affairs position. Unlike Shulkin, who had run the department’s health care system under President Barack Obama and spent a career in hospital administration, Perry has no background in health care delivery, but as Texas’ governor, he showed a willingness to experiment.
If Trump were to make the move, possible replacements for Perry could include Ray Washburne, a Dallas entrepreneur and prominent Republican fundraiser; J. Larry Nichols, the former chairman of Devon Energy; and T. Boone Pickens, the Texas oilman, according to people who work closely with senior officials at the department and the White House.