May 18, 2018

Behind the scenes: Robert Wilkie's nomination to lead Veterans Affairs

 President Donald Trump leans down to shake hands with Robert Wilkie after nominating him to be next Veterans Affairs Secretary, during an event in the East Room at the White House

President Trump shakes hands with Robert Wilkie after nominating him to be the next Veterans Affairs Secretary. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Before President Trump made his surprise announcement that Robert Wilkie would be his pick to run the government's second-largest agency, Trump consulted two of his key advisers on Veterans Affairs: Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter and Fox and Friends host Pete Hegseth.

Behind the scenes: A source familiar with their interactions said that before making his decision, Trump called Hegseth — an Iraq war veteran whom Trump had considered for VA Secretary — to ask his opinion of Wilkie. 

  • Hegseth initially told Trump that he had never met Wilkie but had heard good things. 
  • The source said Hegseth checked in with Wilkie and after talking to him was impressed and recommended him highly to Trump.

Wilkie made another politically smart move that may have sealed the deal on his nomination, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. Wilkie and VA Chief of Staff Peter O'Rourke recently flew to West Palm Beach to meet with Perlmutter. 

When Axios shared this reporting with Veteran Affairs Press Secretary, Curt Cashour, he did not weigh in and referred us to the White House for comment. The White House did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Hegseth.

  • Perlmutter, a member at Trump's Mar-a-Lago club, has been the leader of a group of Palm Beach friends who have been advising Trump on veterans issues since the transition. He initially recommended David Shulkin for VA Sec., though two sources familiar with Perlmutter's thinking said he came to regret ever speaking up for Shulkin.
  • Still, Perlmutter's blessing means a lot in Trumpworld, and we're told Wilkie got it.
  • Per the source familiar with their interaction: "Ike loved him [Wilkie]. Ike was very very high on him."

The backstory: Wilkie was already in good standing at the White House. Senior officials there have long thought highly of him, and some were advocating for Wilkie to replace Shulkin as VA Secretary before Trump made his shocking — and to many in the White House, misguided — decision to appoint the White House physician Ronny Jackson to the role.

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