Veterans Affairs Department Gets a New Acting Secretary

WASHINGTON—The White House on Wednesday announced a new acting secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs, ending days of confusion about who is in charge of the massive federal agency.

Peter O’Rourke, the VA’s chief of staff, replaces Robert Wilkie, who President Donald Trump has nominated to become VA secretary. Mr. O’ Rourke was elevated to the acting secretary position on Tuesday, according to an announcement from the White House released Wednesday morning.

Mr. Wilkie had to vacate his acting position because of civil-service procedural regulations. The move sets necessary groundwork for a confirmation hearing. The White House hasn’t provided a timeline for the hearing and didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee doesn’t have a confirmation timeline, according to Amanda Maddox, spokeswoman for committee chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.). The White House hasn’t provided all the necessary paperwork, she said, adding, “We’ll do our part to expeditiously vet and process the nomination once the paperwork has been submitted.”

Mr. O’Rourke is a Navy and Air Force veteran, according to his VA biography, and served as the executive director of a VA office established to protect whistleblowers before becoming VA chief of staff.

It is unclear when Mr. Wilkie stepped down from his job as acting secretary. On Tuesday afternoon, a top VA official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter said that other high-ranking officials were confused about who was serving as acting secretary and unsure if Mr. Wilkie had stepped down.

A VA spokesman on Tuesday referred all questions to the White House, which didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Wilkie initially took over the helm of the department after the ouster of then-Secretary David Shulkin in March, following a controversy involving a taxpayer-funded official trip to Europe the previous year.

He was appointed over the department’s deputy secretary, Thomas Bowman, who typically would have been given the job but who has faced resistance from White House insiders unhappy with his performance at the department.

On Wednesday, the VA announced Mr. Bowman was again bypassed for the acting secretary job and would soon retire from the VA.

Mr. Bowman, during a tour last week of the headquarters of Amvets, a veteran advocacy group, said he wanted to be named acting secretary, according to Joe Chenelly, Amvets’s national executive director who was on the tour.

Mr. Bowman said he likely would retire if he were again bypassed, though it would upset him because as a Marine Corps veteran he had never quit anything, Mr. Chenelly recalled.

Mr. Bowman’s retirement will take effect on June 15, according to the VA. The VA didn’t respond to a request to speak with Mr. Bowman. The White House released a statement thanking him for his many years of service.

The VA is the second-largest federal agency, with more than 370,000 employees. The agency is responsible for, among other things, providing health-care services to veterans. It has struggled in recent years following a 2014 scandal involving long wait times for VA hospital appointments.

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