AILSA CHANG, HOST:
To talk now a bit more about the outgoing VA secretary, Dr. David Shulkin, I'm joined now by Quil Lawrence. He covers veterans for NPR, and he was one of the people who spoke with Shulkin this morning. Hey, Quil.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hello, Ailsa.
CHANG: So Dr. Shulkin had strong bipartisan support. He was able to get VA reform legislation to the president's desk. He had been a pretty productive member of the administration. How did he explain his sudden downfall?
LAWRENCE: Well, he explained or he excused part of it. There was an inspector general report at the VA that came out slamming a trip that Shulkin took last year to Europe. It was an official trip, but Shulkin took his wife along. And the IG report said that he improperly paid for her travel and improperly received some tickets to Wimbledon on the trip. Now, Shulkin paid it all back. But he says that he was not allowed to explain publicly why this trip was not improper.
DAVID SHULKIN: So this was completely mischaracterized. There was nothing improper about this trip. And I was not allowed to put up an official statement or to even respond to this by the White House, who told me that they didn't want me responding. So I think that this was really just being used in a political context to try to make sure that I wasn't as effective as a leader moving forward.
CHANG: What does he mean there when he says the White House would not let him defend himself?
LAWRENCE: So this is where it gets a little bit weird. It sounds like a paranoid plot when he talks about it. But there were emails leaked from the White House with conversations between other political appointees within the Trump administration openly discussing using this IG report to get Shulkin out and his deputies because they felt he wasn't moving quickly enough to push privatization of VA health care. And this included - the people who were involved in trying to push him out included his senior communications staff. So there was quite a while there it was very clear that the secretary himself wasn't controlling the message that was put out of his own department.
CHANG: So was he fired because of policy differences with the White House?
LAWRENCE: That's kind of hard to say because both Shulkin and the people who oppose him at the administration say that they're the ones representing the president's true intentions with VA health care. And I asked Dr. Shulkin at least three times this morning if President Trump agrees with his political appointees that the VA needs to be more privatized. And he essentially wouldn't answer.
I just have to ask one more time. Do you know where the president stands on privatization?
SHULKIN: I know the president feels strongly about making sure that we're doing better for veterans. I don't - you know, as secretary, he gave me a lot of authority in making sure that we were making that type of progress. I think that there's probably going to be a lot of open discussion about the best way forward.
LAWRENCE: So here's the thing. The VA famously has problems. But once vets get in the door, by and large they like the care that they get there. And full privatization is pretty universally unpopular among veterans' service organizations. And there's no real evidence to show that private health care could do a better job absorbing the 9 million veterans who get their care at the VA.
CHANG: What exactly is the president's position on privatization?
LAWRENCE: Well, Shulkin couldn't or wouldn't say what the president thinks. President Trump said on the campaign trail that he was against privatization. But now he's essentially siding with elements in his administration who are linked to the conservative Koch brothers, who see the VA as socialized medicine. And that maybe means that President Trump is siding against all the major veterans' organizations and leading Republicans and Democrats in Congress on this issue. All of them said that they wanted Shulkin to stay.
CHANG: Quil Lawrence covers veterans for NPR. Thanks, Quil.
LAWRENCE: Thank you.
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