A day after calling Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki “an American hero,” President Barack Obama on Friday announced he had accepted the retired general’s resignation amid a political firestorm over his agency’s dramatic and sometimes deadly failure to care for wounded vets.
“A few minutes ago, Secretary Shinseki offered me his own resignation. With considerable regret, I accepted,” Obama said in a hastily arranged appearance in the White House briefing room.
The president and the former Army chief of staff had met an hour earlier in the Oval Office to discuss the agency’s widespread lapses and efforts to remedy them.
Shinseki “does not want to be a distraction, because his priority is to fix the problem and make sure our vets are getting the care that they need,” the president said. “That was Ric's judgment on behalf of his fellow veterans. And I agree. We don't have time for distractions; we need to fix the problem.”
Obama announced that Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson, a former Army infantryman, would take the troubled agency’s reins until a permanent secretary can be found and confirmed. “I met with Sloan after I met with Ric [Shinseki] this morning and made it clear that reforms should not wait. They need to proceed immediately,” the president said.
And Obama sidestepped a question about whether misdeeds at the VA rose to the level of criminal acts. “I will leave it up to the Justice Department to make determinations in terms of whether there's been criminal wrongdoing,” he said.
The news came just hours after Shinseki had declared that he was firing top officials in the Phoenix, Arizona, VA system — ground zero in an election-year scandal that has shocked the public and raised fresh questions about the Obama administration’s competence. Shinseki also announced that there will be no performance bonuses this year for any medical directors in the VA’s 150-hospital system.
It also followed an ABC television interview, taped on Thursday and aired Friday, in which Obama declared that Shinseki “is an American hero, wounded vet, somebody who led our troops during very difficult times and cares about veterans more than just about anybody I know."
Republicans, who have begun to fundraise off the scandal and called for an independent investigation, kept their fire trained on Obama himself.
“Personnel changes aren't an answer to the problem for our veterans. It’s just musical chairs,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement issued while Obama was still speaking. “Regardless of who the President wants running his department, it’s past time for the President to step up and fix this mess.”
Obama, asked how much blame he should shoulder for the scandal, replied: “In terms of responsibility, as I've said before, this is my administration; I always take responsibility for whatever happens, and this is an area that I have a particular concern with.”