Senate VA Committee ranking member Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) (left) and Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) question VA Secretary David Shulkin during a hearing in June. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Johnny Isakson, a Shulkin fan, will be central to confirmation of Trump’s new VA chief

In a Wednesday evening statement, the leader of the Senate VA Committee lauded Shulkin’s “tremendous impact.” 

“He has been instrumental in all that we have accomplished in the last year, and I thank Dr. Shulkin for his dedicated service to our country and our veterans,” the Republican said. 

The statement came shortly after President Donald Trump announced Shulkin’s ouster via Twitter. The commander-in-chief also used his favorite social media site to announce his plans to nominate Ronny Jackson, the longtime White House physician, as Shulkin’s replacement. 

“I am thankful for Dr. David Shulkin’s service to our country and to our GREAT VETERANS!” Trump tweeted

Isakson was a key ally of Shulkin’s. And he’ll perhaps be the most central figure to Jackson’s confirmation, since the VA nominee must first go through Isakson’s committee. 

Isakson said Wednesday he had never met Jackson. And he was noncommittal about where he stood. 

“I look forward to meeting Admiral Jackson and learning more about him,” Isakson said. 

Shulkin’s ouster wasn’t exactly a surprise. The Obama administration holdover had been under intense scrutiny for weeks after a damning inspector general report detailed a taxpayer-funded trip to Europe with his wife last summer. 

Soon thereafter, an internal power struggle between Shulkin and senior Trump administration appointees spilled into public view. Shulkin said he was being undermined due to policy differences. The main area of disagreement: how much to shift veterans’ health care to the private sector. 

Shulkin was supportive of what is seen as a more moderate solution being pushed by Isakson. Others in the White House wanted a more aggressive expansion of the VA Choice Program, which allows vets to see non-VA doctors. 

Isakson lobbied for Trump to keep Shulkin as recently as last week, reportedly telling the president that the physician and former hospital administrator was a “good man” who has “gotten his hands dirty” on veterans issues.

Isakson had been a cheerleader of Shulkin’s from the very beginning, telling us earlier last year that he couldn’t “think of a better qualified person who’s available.” 

The two worked closely on an accountability bill to make it easier for department leaders to fire problematic employees. And until Shulkin was fired, he was working on modernizing the VA’s antiquated electronic medical records system. 

Shulkin had been confirmed by the Senate 100-0 in February 2017. It’s unclear how Jackson will fare in the currently 51-49 divided chamber, but his confirmation could be an easier lift than one of the candidates Trump had initially floated to replace Shulkin, Fox News personality Pete Hegseth.

An advocate for the more thorough privatization of VA health services, Hegseth had criticized Isakson as a “so-called Republican” and a “Swamp-creature” for his work on a vets bill with liberal U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. 

Read more: Johnny Isakson warns White House against removal of VA chief

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About the Author

Tamar Hallerman
Tamar Hallerman
Tamar Hallerman is a senior reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's enterprise team, where she covers gender, the urban-rural divide and other...