Obama Leaves Door Open for Shinseki Departure

The president wasn’t exactly glowing in his praise for the embattled VA secretary on Wednesday.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 21: Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki arrives at the White House before a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama May 21, 2014 in Washington, DC. The White House announced that Obama and Shinseki will speak to the press after their meeting. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
May 21, 2014, 10:38 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama has shown over the last six years that he is by nature re­luct­ant to lop off heads and fire sub­or­din­ates at the first sign of scan­dal in their agen­cies. But Eric Shin­seki can take little en­cour­age­ment from the pres­id­ent’s com­ments Wed­nes­day. Even while prais­ing the em­battled sec­ret­ary of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs, he did seem to be nudging him to­ward the door.

If there was any doubt that the pres­id­ent is open to the pos­sib­il­ity of changed lead­er­ship at the VA, White House press sec­ret­ary Jay Car­ney dis­pelled it at his daily brief­ing when he said that was “a fair read­ing” of what the pres­id­ent said. If the cur­rent al­leg­a­tions prove to be true, said Car­ney, “There should be con­sequences. He made that clear to Sec­ret­ary Shin­seki.”

At the least, Obama did not rule out the pos­sib­il­ity that the sec­ret­ary may make his own de­cision to head for the exit. Re­fer­ring to him in­form­ally as “Ric,” the pres­id­ent al­most seemed to be in­vit­ing Shin­seki to leave. He said that Shin­seki’s “at­ti­tude is, if he does not think he can do a good job on this and if he thinks he’s let our vet­er­ans down, then I’m sure that he is not go­ing to be in­ter­ested in con­tinu­ing to serve.” He quickly ad­ded that Shin­seki “is com­mit­ted to solv­ing the prob­lem and work­ing with us” on get­ting to the bot­tom of the al­leg­a­tions. But that, he said rather omin­ously, was “at this stage.”

There was no sim­il­ar wiggle room in his pub­lic com­ments the last time a key aide was fa­cing de­mands for her dis­missal. When then-Sec­ret­ary of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Kath­leen Se­beli­us was un­der fire, the pres­id­ent all-but ab­solved her of blame for the botched rol­lout of the health care web­site, say­ing in Novem­ber that she “doesn’t write code “¦ she wasn’t our IT per­son.” Seni­or ad­viser Valer­ie Jar­rett also de­fen­ded Se­beli­us, stat­ing that the pres­id­ent “is in­ter­ested in solu­tions, not scape­goats.”

Since the cur­rent al­leg­a­tions sur­faced, the pres­id­ent has sim­il­arly pleaded for time to let in­tern­al in­vest­ig­a­tions play out even as he seems acutely aware of the grow­ing de­mands for ac­count­ab­il­ity. “I know,” he said, “that people are angry and want swift reck­on­ing. I sym­path­ize with that. But we have to let the in­vest­ig­at­ors do their job and get to the bot­tom of what happened. Our vet­er­ans de­serve to know the facts. Their fam­il­ies de­serve to know the facts.” He pledged that “once we know the facts, I as­sure you if there is mis­con­duct it will be pun­ished.”

The pres­id­ent long has de­ferred to Shin­seki and giv­en him the re­spect due a four-star gen­er­al who was wounded in com­bat, los­ing part of his foot to a hand gren­ade in Vi­et­nam. And that praise was there Wed­nes­day. “Ric Shin­seki, I think, serves this coun­try be­cause he cares deeply about vet­er­ans and he cares deeply about the mis­sion,” said Obama, who pledged “to do everything in my power, us­ing the re­sources of the White House, to help that pro­cess of get­ting to the bot­tom of what happened and fix­ing it.”

But he was very se­lect­ive in his praise of Shin­seki. “Ric Shin­seki has been a great sol­dier. He him­self is a dis­abled vet­er­an, and nobody cares more about our vet­er­ans than Ric Shin­seki. So, you know, if you ask me, you know, how do I think Ric Shin­seki has per­formed over­all, I would say that on home­less­ness, on the 9/11 GI Bill, on work­ing with us to re­duce the back­log across the board, he has put his heart and soul in­to this thing and he has taken it very ser­i­ously,” said Obama. “But I have said to Ric, and I said it to him today, I want to see, you know, what the res­ults of these re­ports are, and there is go­ing to be ac­count­ab­il­ity.”

Much more than when he talked about Se­beli­us, the pres­id­ent openly en­ter­tained the no­tion of man­age­ment mis­takes at the VA. Rather bluntly, he de­clared, “I won’t know un­til the full re­port is “¦ put for­ward as to wheth­er there was enough man­age­ment fol­low-up to en­sure that those folks on the front lines who were do­ing schedul­ing had the ca­pa­city to meet those goals, if they were be­ing eval­u­ated for meet­ing goals that were un­real­ist­ic and they couldn’t meet be­cause either there wer­en’t enough doc­tors or the sys­tems wer­en’t in place, or what have you.”

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