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Trump's pick to head Veterans Affairs: Robert Wilkie

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President Donald Trump shakes hands with Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, during an event on prison reform in the East Room of the White House, Friday, May 18, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) President Donald Trump shakes hands with Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, during an event on prison reform in the East Room of the White House, Friday, May 18, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump announced Friday he is nominating Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie to permanently lead the beleaguered department.

Wilkie, a former Pentagon undersecretary for personnel and readiness, has led the agency since Trump fired David Shulkin two months ago amid an ethics scandal and mounting rebellion within the department.

Trump revealed his decision during a prison reform event at the White House, and said the decision was a surprise to Wilkie. "He doesn't know this yet — that we're going to be putting his name up for nomination to be secretary of the veterans' administration," Trump said.

Trump previously nominated White House physician Dr. Ronny Jackson for the job, but he withdrew last month.

Wilkie, 56, oversaw a new Pentagon policy aimed at stemming harassment in the military after an online nude-photo sharing scandal rocked the Marine Corps. He was confirmed unanimously as Pentagon undersecretary by the Senate.

As acting VA secretary, Wilkie has sought to rebuild morale at an agency beset with inner turmoil and rebellion over Trump's push to expand private care. On Thursday, he announced a major $10 billion contract with Cerner Corp. to overhaul electronic health records for millions of veterans, a 10-year project that aims to improve mental health care and ease access to private providers.

The VA faces problems demanding immediate attention, including a multibillion dollar revamp of electronic medical records, now in limbo, that members of Congress fear will prove too costly and wasteful, and a budget shortfall in the coming weeks in its private-sector Veterans Choice program. The House is slated to vote on a wide-ranging bill next week that would give veterans more freedom to see doctors outside the VA health system and fill the budget shortfall, a major step toward fulfilling Trump's promise to expand private care for veterans.

Wilkie, an Air Force and Navy veteran, had the strong backing of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and White House chief of staff John Kelly for the VA post as a skilled manager with defense expertise, over other candidates who had more political experience, such as former Rep. Jeff Miller, who had chaired the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

The son of an Army artillery commander, he spent his childhood at Fort Bragg and served under President George W. Bush as an assistant secretary of defense. He was the youngest senior leader in the department. He also served as senior adviser to Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., before being named a Pentagon undersecretary in 2017.

Jackson's nomination to replace Shulkin surprised veterans groups that were unaware his name was under consideration. He was a career military doctor who lacked significant management experience. While Jackson was well-liked in Washington and drew praise from Obama administration officials he'd treated, even many Republicans were skeptical of his ability to lead the VA.

After Jackson withdrew from consideration, White House officials said Trump planned to interview and vet his next nominee more thoroughly. Wilkie was among several candidates White House staff interviewed in recent weeks for the post.

The president had indicated he intended to pick someone with a more political background for the role, hoping such a person would better navigate the turbulent confirmation process in a narrowly divided Senate. Wilkie has experience shepherding two defense secretaries through Senate confirmation.

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Associated Press writers Ken Thomas and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.

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