Ousted Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin on Friday said that President Donald Trump wanted the VA to embrace the private sector.
During an interview on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program, Shulkin said "I am very concerned about the future of VA."
Shulkin said his No. 1 goal was to "make sure that this organization stays on track with the type of progress we've been making and that it's not hijacked and dismantled."
"I think there are clear forces that are trying to suggest a VA system is not necessary, that the private sector can handle all of the care for our veterans," Shulkin said.
"We're caring for more than 9 million American veterans, and many of them have specialized needs," he said. "There's research being done by VA that no one else is doing and this is a system that is essential not only for veterans but the national security of our country."
On Thursday, Shulkin said he talked to Trump on the telephone shortly before he learned that he was fired, and the president gave him no indication that he was about to be out of work.
"We spoke about the progress that I was making, what I needed to do from a policy perspective to make sure that we are fixing the issues in the VA," Shulkin told MSNBC's "All In" host Chris Hayes.
"He was very inquisitive about the things we were working on, making sure that we were focused on the job at hand."
In Thursday's interview, Shulkin said Trump tweeted Wednesday afternoon that he planned to nominate the White House physician Adm. Ronny Jackson to head the VA.
Right before that happened, though, Chief of Staff John Kelly called Shulkin to give him a heads-up, which the former secretary said he appreciated, "but that was much after the phone call."
Shulkin told Hayes that he'd considered the phone call with Trump "a normal conversation with the president, where he asked me what was going on. This is not atypical. I gave him the updates and told him where we were focused, and he had questions about that. It was a very interactive exchange as we normally have our discussions."
Shulkin on Friday told the "Morning Joe" program that there were "forces in place, political appointees, that didn't like the way I was managing the department. As you probably know, I believe the VA needs to be apolitical, that we have to do things with bipartisan support.
"I'm very proud of our leadership in congress, we got 11 bills passed last year to improve the VA, and many believe I should have been driving the much more towards a private sector or privatization approach."
However, he would not agree if Trump is behind that push.
"I think the president, as he said, is genuine, he wants to do better for veterans," he said. "I don't think he's aware of all of the particular political forces in play at VA. Nor do I expect he would know that detail, so I don't think there was a direct knowledge of all these issues but clearly these were political appointees coming out of the administration."
Meanwhile, when Hayes asked if Trump understands how the VA functions, Shulkin explained that the organization is "very complex, and from the outside it seems easy, why aren't things fixed faster? The truth is that the VA has had systemic problems for decades, which spans multiple administrations."
Shulkin said he does believe he was on the "right track" for fixing the VA's issues, including working in a bipartisan way with Congress and doing what veterans groups wanted, which was to strengthen the VA while giving more choices in the private sector.
"This is a very complex formula to move an organization this big in the type of transformation that it needs to undergo," said Shulkin.
He added that in retrospect, he does not know exactly what Trump's intention was with the phone call.
"I take it at face value that he was thinking about veterans that day," said Shulkin. "[He] picked up the phone to ask me a series of questions and then later on that afternoon, decided that he felt that it was time for a change."
Shulkin added that he's "not good at the crystal ball game," but was in Washington to focus on veteran issues.
"I don't do politics very well, obviously," he said, "but the important thing is, is that we have to get this organization working again."
Meanwhile, Shulkin told Hayes that he is "absolutely saying" that there was "clear evidence though that the political appointees inside VA were working against me and my leadership team because they felt that we were trying to strengthen the VA rather than move it towards privatization."
Shulkin, though, said he doesn't have evidence that Trump had favored the privatization agenda.
"I think that the president wants to improve care for veterans," said Shulkin. "I think that he is not served well by political appointees who are taking their own personal agendas much further than I think that he intended them to."
He said he reported the issues, but Trump did not intervene, and he didn't expect him to have to.
"The president's always been clear with me that he wanted to make progress and make progress fast at the VA, something that I shared," he said. "Working in an organization where people have multiple agendas is always tough, but I think that in this circumstance, in the politicized environment that we have in Washington, this became a pretty significant issue and one that I was determined that we were going to get back on track.
"Unfortunately, the president made the decision that he wanted to go a different direction."
Shulkin said he does know Jackson personally and finds him to be a person "with high integrity, very honorable," but the VA is a tough job for anyone.
"This is the second largest department in the government," he said. "It's almost a $200 billion budget with 370,000 people. Dr. Jackson, I believe, is going to do this with the right intention.
"He's going to need a lot of help around him and a team around him to be successful. And I certainly believe that I will do everything I can to make sure that that is — that he is doing the job he needs to do."
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