WASHINGTON – He had been on the bubble with the president for more than a month. The White House was an enigma.
Entreaties to President Donald Trump and his chief of staff were met with reassurances, up to a few hours before he was fired. In a tweet.
“When it happens, not only is it a surprise, but it’s painful,” David Shulkin, Trump’s first secretary of Veterans Affairs, said about being axed in March 2018.
He was not the first and far from the last member of Trump’s administration to be unceremoniously dispatched that way. But Shulkin is the first former Cabinet member to pen an insider’s account.
The physician and one-time hospital administrator told USA TODAY he wanted the public to know what it’s like to serve in Washington. He wanted to lay out the lessons he learned and the plans he left unfinished.
“Nobody asked me, ‘What were you working on, did you have a plan? Was there a formula that was working?’” Shulkin said. “I felt like I had spent three years learning and failing and learning and failing, and yet there was nobody to share that with.”
His account, “It Shouldn’t Be This Hard to Serve Your Country,” is a mix of policy discussion, legacy preservation and score-settling. (Shulkin blames a group of political appointees for undermining him and ultimately getting him fired.) And of course there’s a sprinkling of scenes with Trump.
During Shulkin’s interview for the Cabinet post at Trump Tower, he wrote, the president-elect remarked that he’s a “good-looking guy.” Trump sought advice onShulkin’shiring from Marvel Entertainment chairman – and Mar-a-Lago member – Ike Perlmutter.
In a chapter titled “Team Chaos,” Shulkin recounts Oval Office meetings and nighttime phone calls in which Trump asked about topics Shulkin had no expertise in, such as what to do about North Korea or whether he should move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. (He did.)
“He would talk about what was on his mind. Sometimes it would relate directly to the area that I had responsibility for, but oftentimes it was about world events or things on his calendar or schedule,” Shulkin said in an interview last week. He said he had to get used to the “free flow of conversation.”
Asked for comment, the White House referred to a statement provided to The Washington Post before the book’s release in October, criticizing Shulkin for profiting off his time in office and sharing “outlandish” claims about conversations with Trump.
For his part, Shulkin won’t say what he thinks of the president, his fitness for office or whether he should be impeached. “I do dance around this because I’m trying to reserve my personal opinions,” he said.
Shulkin was the only holdover from the Obama administration in Trump’s Cabinet. He became undersecretary for health at the VA in 2015 after running hospitals in New York and New Jersey.
During his time at the VA, he increased the agency’s capacity to treat veterans by expanding remote health care and instituting same-day services for urgent needs. He also increased transparency by posting wait times for VA facilities and comparisons to non-VA care.
Among the lessons Shulkin said he learned at the VA was that the way to make big changes in Washington is to publicly declare your intentions before checking with others, including Congress, the White House or even agency employees charged with carrying them out.
That’s what he said happened in 2016 with same-day services, which initially triggered pushback from outside and inside the agency, where employees said it couldn’t be done.
The VA is “almost set up for a system to stay exactly the way it is,” Shulkin said.
‘Not an ideal’ departure
The White House soured on him when he didn’t move quickly or far enough to expand veterans’ options for taxpayer-funded health care outside the VA, Trump has said. Shulkin maintains he was fired because he opposed privatizing the agency, which he said other political appointees were pushing.
Tensions escalated in early 2018 after the VA inspector general concluded Shulkin had misused taxpayer money on a European trip.
In his last phone call with President Trump, hours before he was fired, Shulkin said, they discussed the changes underway at the agency. Among those left unfinished were an overhaul of veterans’ disability benefits and a reorganization of the VA.
Then came the tweet.
“Not having a lot of time to prepare for that – certainly not having a lot of time to make sure that you appropriately transition your responsibilities – is not an ideal way to leave the government,” Shulkin said.
While he won’t take a position on impeachment, he said the process has laid bare the political divide in the country.
“I’m sad to see that the country’s going through this,” Shulkin said. “The fact that people are viewing this through very different lenses is showing why it’s so difficult for us to make progress on the difficult solutions, on the difficult problems that are facing the country.”