Ron DeSantis, former Florida congressman Jeff Miller emerge as contenders for Trump’s VA

Miller spent 16 years in Congress and now works in Washington, D.C., as a lobbyist. DeSantis is running for governor.
2014: Rep. Jeff Miller, pictured in his office in May, has been pushed from the Florida panhandle into the spotlight. thanks to his post as chairman of the House VA committee. ALEX LEARY | Times
2014: Rep. Jeff Miller, pictured in his office in May, has been pushed from the Florida panhandle into the spotlight. thanks to his post as chairman of the House VA committee. ALEX LEARY | Times
Published May 2, 2018|Updated May 2, 2018

WASHINGTON – Former Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who chaired the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs before retiring from Congress last year, is considered a leading candidate to become President Donald Trump's next nominee for Veterans Affairs secretary, according to several people familiar with the matter.

Miller, who spent 16 years in Congress and now works in Washington, D.C., as a lobbyist, is scheduled to meet Wednesday with officials in a White House vetting office and possibly Trump, according to the people, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the personnel issue.

A senior administration official, who confirmed Trump's interest in Miller, said a decision is not expected before next week. Reached by phone on Wednesday, Miller said he had "no comment" when asked whether he's been asked about joining the administration or if he would want the job leading the second largest Cabinet department.

Several other candidates are still believed to be under consideration, including Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., who Trump has said would make a great governor of Florida.

After White House physician Ronny Jackson withdrew from consideration last week amid allegations of professional misconduct, Trump said there was great interest in the position from others and that the candidates include "some very political people."

Trump suggested that a nominee with more political experience would have been better positioned to handle the kind of allegations Jackson faced.

Jackson, a rear admiral in the Navy, dropped out amid unverified allegations of drinking on the job and creating a hostile work environment – which he vigorously denied. Trump has also called the allegations false, saying Jackson was the victim of slander.

Miller is one of two candidates that House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., publicly suggested to Trump last week. Ryan also floated the possibility of Rep. Phil Roe , R-Tenn., the current chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

Miller has been fiercely critical of VA's long wait times for veterans and has been an outspoken critic of its services, often highlighting dysfunctional hospital staff, the silencing of whistleblowers and inspector general reports on topics including dirty hospitals and botched surgeries.

While a member of the committee, he pushed to expand the Choice program, which allows veterans to seek medical care at taxpayer expense from providers outside VA's network. Trump also favors expanding the program, which was a point of contention with the last VA secretary, David Shulkin, whom Trump fired in late March.

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That action followed an inspector general's report that said Shulkin took his wife on a business trip at taxpayer's expense. There were also tensions with conservatives over the extent to which Shulkin was willing to outsource care.

A top VA official said he hopes that the administration will "take its time in choosing the next candidate," asking not to be named because he is not authorized to speak about the issue. "For the sake of the vets," the official said, "we all need to get this right."

From the start, Jackson was a startling pick, according to lawmakers and veterans groups, who were concerned that he didn't have the experience to manage a department with 360,000 employees serving 9 million veterans.

One person close to the White House and familiar with the selection process said that Miller has "never clicked" with Trump. Miller was not interviewed for the VA job prior to Trump taking office despite the fact that he and Trump spent a lot of time together during the transition, the person said.

This person described any meeting between Trump and Miller a "pulse check," adding: "Trump is Trump, and he's going to do what he wants to do."

Miller, however, has the respect of key people in Trump's orbit because of his work with Trump on veterans issue during campaign, the person said.

Following Jackson's exit, some veterans groups were strongly backing VA Deputy Secretary Thomas Bowman, who was appointed by Trump and confirmed by the Senate in August.

As recently as last month, however, Bowman's job was said to be in jeopardy. He has been at odds with the administration over its plan to expand health care access for veterans through private providers.

Bowman served for 30 years in the Marine Corps and spent a decade at VA before becoming the majority staff director for the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. He has also worked as a private attorney concentrating on military and veterans issues.

Another name floated by veterans groups is the current agency's acting head, Robert Wilkie, who told employees recently that he wants to refocus an organization beset by internal division.

During a public event at the White House last week, Trump said Wilkie "is doing a great job over at the VA."

Wilkie has been walking the halls of VA's Washington headquarters, holding meetings with small groups of employees and inquiring about their duties, said a senior VA official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person is not authorized to speak with the media.

In a three-minute video distributed to employees, Wilkie, 55, emphasized the agency's sacred mission of caring for those who have fought the nation's wars.

VFW Executive Director Bob Wallace called VA "a national treasure" and said whoever is selected to lead the department must be a proven and effective leader with management experience.

Dan Caldwell, a spokesman for the Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative group, said its membership thinks highly of Miller.

"He did very fine work as chairman," Caldwell said, whose group has been pushing for veterans to be able to receive private care at taxpayer expense. "We know his approach to the issue would be thoughtful, and he didn't rush into it before when the program started."

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