At a hastily-announced press conference in the White House's Brady Briefing Room Friday morning, President Obama announced the resignation of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, in the midst of a scandal surrounding fraudulent waiting lists at V.A. facilities that resulted in delayed care for veterans. The President also announced that current Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson will replace Shinseki until a permanent replacement is confirmed, and took several questions from the press.
The President began by outlining the immediate steps being taken to mitigate the scandal, including contacting the 1700 veterans in Phoenix whose care was delayed, and offering them appointments with private physicians (as suggested in these pages weeks ago), and firing those responsible. He then acknowledged Shinseki's public apology this morning, and announced, "A few moments ago, he offered me his letter of resignation, and with considerable regret, I accepted."
President Obama praised Shinseki's service, and added that he agreed with Secretary Shinseki that "the V.A. needs new leadership" to address its problems, and "he does not want to be a distraction, because his priority is to fix the problem and make sure our vets are getting the care they need."
He also announced that Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors would stay on at the V.A. to assist Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson until a permanent replacement is found. In a surprising move, the President also took several questions from reporters, and it seemed clear, from his responses, that the ouster of Shinseki was a reluctant move, fueled by the practical realities of political distraction.
Tribune White House Correspondent Christi Parsons drew a comparison to former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and asked if Shinseki was simply being scapegoated. The President's response was, essentially, Yeah, kinda.
"Well, the distractions that Eric refers to in part are political," the President said. "He needs to be -- at this stage what I want is somebody at the V.A. who is not spending time outside of solving problems for the veterans." In the case of Sebelius, the President said he thought it would have been more of a distraction to remove her in the midst of the Obamacare rollout. "I remember at the time you felt that she had so much knowledge about what had gone wrong and that you could not afford the lose it, but does somebody with three months in leadership in the department have the capacity to attack the problem quickly now?" Parsons asked.
The President acknowledged that there would be a "learning curve" for Sloan Gibson, but that the immediate problem "is one that we can start to tackling right away, and without completely transforming the system." Here's complete video of the President's remarks, and responses to reporters:
While conservatives have already begun to cast this move as a catch-up maneuver to "kill the scandal," the President seemed pretty clear that the main reason he's accepting Shinseki's resignation isn't that he thinks Shinseki can't fix the problems, but because of all the noise from people demanding blood. He appears to agree with me (and John Boehner, God help us) that even if Shinseki's failure is grounds for firing, he might also just be the man most qualified to fix things, and firing him doesn't necessarily make anything better for veterans. It might make them worse.
One other interesting note on this press conference: the President's decision to take questions appears to have been an audible, because the White House Press Office rearranged the President's schedule in such a way as to give him an out. His meeting with Shinseki was announced at 8:45 this morning, and his next event was to be a meeting with the My Brother's Keeper Task Force at 11 am. When the President's remarks were announced, at 11:03 am, the updated schedule only allowed 15 minutes, at most, for the announcement:
11:15AM THE PRESIDENT delivers a statement Brady Press Briefing Room Open Press
11:30AM THE PRESIDENT meets with the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force Roosevelt Room Pool Spray at the bottom (Final Gather 11:45AM – Brady Press Briefing Room)
As it turned out, the President wrapped up his announcement before 11:30, but took questions for another 15 minutes or so.