|10th United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs|
July 30, 2018 – January 20, 2021
Pamela J. Powers (acting)
|Preceded by||David Shulkin|
|Succeeded by||Denis McDonough|
March 28, 2018 – May 29, 2018
|Deputy||Thomas G. Bowman|
|Preceded by||David Shulkin|
|Succeeded by||Peter O'Rourke (acting)|
|8th Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness|
November 30, 2017 – July 30, 2018
|Preceded by||Jessica L. Wright|
|Succeeded by||Matthew Donovan|
|25th Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs|
September 29, 2006 – January 19, 2009
Acting: January 31, 2006 – September 29, 2006
|President||George W. Bush|
|Preceded by||Dan Stanley|
|Succeeded by||Elizabeth King|
Robert Leon Wilkie Jr.
August 2, 1962
Frankfurt, West Germany
|Education||Wake Forest University (BA)|
Loyola University New Orleans (JD)
Georgetown University (LLM)
United States Army War College (MS)
|Branch/service||United States Navy Reserve|
United States Air Force Reserve
Robert Leon Wilkie Jr. (born August 2, 1962) is an American lawyer and government official who served as the United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs from 2018 to 2021, during the Trump administration. He was previously Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness during the Trump administration, from November 2017 to July 2018. A Naval intelligence officer in the Reserve, he was Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs in the administration of President George W. Bush.
Early life and education
Wilkie was born in Frankfurt, West Germany, and attended Salisbury Cathedral School in England, and Reid Ross High School in Fayetteville, North Carolina. The son of a career Army artillery officer, he grew up in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Wilkie received his B.A. degree from Wake Forest University in North Carolina. He received a J.D. degree from Loyola University School of Law in New Orleans in 1988 and an LL.M. degree in International and Comparative Law from Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.
Congressional staffer and George W. Bush administration official
Wilkie was a longtime Republican congressional staffer. He began his career on Capitol Hill as counsel to Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, and later became legislative director for Representative David Funderburk. As a top aide to Helms, Wilkie defended the senator's often-polarizing views.
In 1996, Wilkie unsuccessfully sought for the Republican nomination in North Carolina's 7th congressional district. He was later the executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party at a time Helms was in a contentious reelection fight against Democratic challenger Harvey Gantt. Wilkie defended a pro-Helms mailer that was criticized as racially charged. In 1996, Wilkie also criticized Gantt for having "openly courted money from the homosexual community."
Wilkie then returned to Capitol Hill as counsel and advisor on international security affairs to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott from 1997 to 2003. In that role, Wilkie led negotiations on the post-September 11 authorization for the use of military force and worked to defeat U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. After Lott was ousted as Senate majority leader in 2003 for praising the segregationist presidential campaign of Senator Strom Thurmond in 1948, Wilkie defended Lott's remarks.
From 2003 to 2005, in the George W. Bush administration, Wilkie was special assistant to the President for national security affairs and a senior director of the National Security Council. He was a senior policy advisor to then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice as well as her successor, Stephen Hadley. He later moved to the Pentagon, where in 2007, as assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs, Wilkie authored a memo outlining guidelines that limited which Defense Department personnel could testify to Congress. Wilkie memo directed that only highest-ranking officers and presidentially appointed civilians could offer congressional testimony, barring all field-grade officers and enlisted personnel from testifying. Critics of the guidelines argued that they could impede investigations of the Iraq War, and that the Pentagon had no authority to set such rules. (The memo did not impact congressional subpoenas, in which Congress can compel any individual to appear).
Wilkie received the Defense Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest civilian award of the Department.
Private sector and return to congressional staff
From 2010 to 2015, Wilkie was vice president for strategic programs for CH2M Hill, an engineering company. According to his official biography, he worked on reform of Britain's Ministry of Defence supply and logistics system.
Wilkie worked on the Donald Trump's presidential transition team. President Trump nominated Wilkie to the post of Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness in July 2017. The Senate confirmed the nomination by unanimous consent on November 16, 2017.
On March 28, 2018, Trump announced via Twitter that Wilkie would serve as interim Secretary of Veterans Affairs until the Senate confirmed a successor. President Trump nominated Ronny Jackson to be VA secretary, but on May 18, 2018, after Jackson's nomination was withdrawn, President Trump nominated Wilkie to the position. On July 23, 2018, Wilkie's nomination as VA secretary was confirmed by the Senate by an 86–9 vote. He was sworn in on July 30, 2018.
VA inspector general investigation and report
The VA Office of Inspector General (IG) determined that Wilkie and his senior staff sought to discredit a woman who reported sexual assaulted by a contractor at the D.C. Medical Center (the flagship VA hospital in Washington, D.C.) and impugn her credibility. The woman, a U.S. Navy veteran and an aide to the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, made the report in the fall of 2019; prosecutors declined to file sexual assault charges.
Wilkie and his senior staff openly questioned the veterans' account and suggested that her report was politically motivated. In February 2020, Wilkie abruptly fired James Byrne from his position of deputy secretary of veterans affairs. The dismissal was a surprise because Bryne had been popular among veterans' groups and was seen as a loyalist to Wilkie. Wilkie provided little reasoning for the decision, suggesting only that Byrne "who was not jelling with other members of the team." Byrne later said he was fired because he declined to participate in an effort by Wilkie to smear the woman, telling Stars & Stripes, "I've gotten crossways with Wilkie over the [sexual assault] matter by refusing to trash this woman."
In a 68-page report issued in December 2020, VA IG Michael Missal determined that "The tone set by Secretary Wilkie was at minimum unprofessional and at worst provided the basis for VA leaders' attempts to undermine the veteran's credibility" and concluded that "Using denigrating remarks and questioning the credibility of a veteran who reported being sexually assaulted, and then failing to fully explore the facts, is ... contrary to the ongoing missions of improving VA and of serving the veteran community with respect." The IG did not substantiate an allegation that Wilkie had accessed the complainant's military and electronic health records, or asked others to do so, in an attempt to "dig up dirt" on her. Wilkie and his two top press aides gave an interview to the investigators from the VA IG's Office, but refused to sit for follow-up interviews. The IG informed the Justice Department of possible criminal conduct by Wilkie (specifically relating to interference into the assault investigation and perjury during testimony to investigators); the IG did not make a formal criminal referral, and the Justice Department did not charge Wilkie with a crime, reportedly believing the evidence was insufficient. Wilkie denied all wrongdoing.
After the issuance of the IG report in December 2020, the heads of six major veterans organizations (the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, AMVETS, Vietnam Veterans of America, and Paralyzed Veterans of America) called upon President Trump to fire Wilkie from his post. The New York Times editorial board also called for Wilkie to be dismissed.
In a 1995 speech at the U.S. Capitol, Wilkie called Confederate President Jefferson Davis a "martyr to 'The Lost Cause'" and an "exceptional man in an exceptional age"; in a pro-Confederate event in 2009, Wilkie spoke about Robert E. Lee to the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV). He also called abolitionists who opposed slavery "radical", "mendacious", and "enemies of liberty", and stated that the Confederate "cause was honorable," while also condemning slavery as "a stain on our story as it is a stain on every civilization in history". Wilkie is a former member of the SCV and its Confederate Memorial Committee, having been listed as a member at least through 2010; In June 2018, a Defense Department spokesperson said that Wilkie no longer considered himself a member of the group.
During Wilkie's confirmation hearings to be VA secretary, he gave inaccurate answers to Senators regarding the dates of his speaking to Confederate groups. In sworn statements to the Senate as part of the nomination questionnaire, he failed to include his membership in the SCV and omitted his event speeches from responses asking for details on them.
Swastikas on grave markers
In 2020, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation demanded VA remove three headstones in two VA cemeteries (Fort Sam Houston in Texas and Fort Douglas Post in Utah) that mark the graves of World War II German prisoners of war. The three gravestones at issue featured the Nazi swastikas, the Iron Cross, and tributes to Adolf Hitler ("He died far from his home for the Führer, people and fatherland."). After coming under pressure from Congress to remove the headstones from the national cemeteries, Wilkie initially declined to do so, suggesting that "erasing these headstones removes them from memory"; that "divisive historical figures or events" should be recognized; and that removal would require a lengthy process under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Amid continued pressure, Wilkie reversed himself, and VA quietly removed the grave markers in 2020.
He is married to Julia Wilkie, whom he has known since childhood.
- "FamilySearch". FamilySearch.
- "President Trump announces he's nominating Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie to lead agency". May 2018. Archived from the original on November 10, 2018. Retrieved May 18, 2018.
- Summers, Juana (July 23, 2018). "Senate confirms new secretary of veterans affairs". CNN. Retrieved January 31, 2019.
- Ebbs, Stephanie (July 30, 2018). "Robert Wilkie sworn in as new Veterans Affairs secretary". ABC News.
- "Fayetteville native Robert Wilkie confirmed by unanimous consent by U.S. Senate". The Fayetteville Observer. November 2017. Retrieved November 17, 2017.
- Futch, Michael. "Wilkie calls his nomination for defense position 'an honor'". The Fayetteville Observer. Retrieved April 7, 2020.
- Paul Sonne & Lisa Rein, Trump's VA pick, once a defender of Confederate symbols, built his career serving polarizing figures, Washington Post (June 26, 2018).
- "5 things to know about incoming VA secretary Robert Wilkie". USA Today. July 24, 2018.
- Murphy, Brian (July 20, 2017). "Trump taps Tillis aide for Pentagon post". McClatchy DC. Retrieved August 2, 2017.
- Sisk, Richard (July 23, 2018). "Senate Confirms Wilkie as New VA Secretary". Military.com. Retrieved March 5, 2021.
- Kesling, Ben (June 26, 2018). "VA Nominee Faces Questions on Role in Jesse Helms Races". Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved February 4, 2020.
- Murphy, Brian (May 18, 2018). "Trump picks North Carolina's Robert Wilkie to lead the VA". The News & Observer.
- Brian Murphy (March 28, 2018). "President Trump names a former aide to Helms and Tillis to lead transition at VA". Charlotte Observer.
- "United States Department of Defense". www.defenselink.mil.
- Bender, Bryan (May 11, 2007). "Pentagon restricting who can testify before Congress". Boston Globe. Retrieved August 2, 2017.
- Schallhorn, Kaitlyn (May 18, 2018). "Who is Robert Wilkie? 4 things to know about Trump's Veterans Affairs secretary". Fox News. Retrieved February 4, 2020.
- Brian Murphy, Trump taps Tillis aide for Pentagon post, McClatchy (July 20, 2017).
- Lisa Rein, Seung Min Kim & Josh Dawsey, VA chief Robert Wilkie has pushed to be the next Pentagon chief, Washington Post (March 12, 2019).
- Shane, Leo III (August 22, 2017). "President Trump nominates Wilkie, Kurta to oversee Pentagon personnel issues". Military Times. Retrieved February 4, 2020.
- "PN813 — Robert L. Wilkie — Department of Defense". U.S. Congress. November 16, 2017. Retrieved November 17, 2017.
- Brooks, Drew. "Fayetteville native Robert Wilkie confirmed by unanimous consent by U.S. Senate". The Fayetteville Observer. Retrieved February 4, 2020.
- Lejeune, Tristan (March 2, 2020). "White House adds VA secretary, CMS chief to coronavirus task force". TheHill. Retrieved April 13, 2020.
- Rein, Lisa; Spencer S. Hsu (December 9, 2020). "VA watchdog told prosecutors his probe of Secretary Wilkie's effort to discredit House staffer turned up possible criminal conduct". The Washington Post.
- Rein, Lisa (December 10, 2021). "Watchdog finds VA Secretary Robert Wilkie questioned the credibility of a House aide who reported a sexual assault at hospital". Washington Post. Retrieved March 5, 2021.
- Rein, Lisa (February 8, 2020). "VA chief Wilkie sought to dig up dirt on woman who complained of sexual assault, agency insiders say". The Washington Post.
- Arnsdorf, Isaac, Inside Trump's VA: VA Secretary Looked for Dirt on a House Staffer Who Reported Sexual Assault in a VA Hospital, Complaint Says, ProPublica, February 7, 2020. Retrieved 2021-01-13.
- Lisa Rein, VA chief calls deputy's sudden firing a 'simple business decision' but provides few answers, Washington Post (February 5, 2020).
- Steve Beynon, Former VA second-in-command says he was fired for not going along with plan to discredit House staffer, Stars & Stripes (November 20, 2020).
- LeBlanc, Paul (December 9, 2020). "Washington Post: Watchdog told prosecutors that probe of VA secretary found potentially criminal conduct". CNN.
- Alex Ward, Why veterans groups want Trump's VA secretary to resign, Vox (December 17, 2020).
- The Editorial Board, Opinion: Fire Robert Wilkie, New York Times (December 18, 2020).
- Kaczynski, Andrew (December 7, 2018). "VA secretary praised Confederate president as a "martyr to 'The Lost Cause'" in 1995 speech". CNN. Retrieved December 7, 2018.
- Selk, Avi (December 10, 2018). "Trump's VA secretary is a fan of Jefferson Davis. But Davis was loathed in the Confederacy". St. Louis Post Dispatch. Retrieved December 18, 2018.
- Itkowitz, Colby (June 27, 2018). "The Health 202: 'We will hold you accountable.' Democrats grill Azar on family separations". Washington Post. Retrieved December 9, 2018.
- Kaczynski, Andrew (January 4, 2019). "VA Secretary Robert Wilkie didn't disclose pro-Confederate associations on confirmation paperwork". CNN.
- Kaczynski, Andrew (December 14, 2018). "VA secretary gave inaccurate answers on pro-Confederate ties during confirmation process". CNN. Retrieved December 14, 2018.
- Shane, Leo (May 28, 2020). "Amid criticism, Secretary Wilkie won't commit to removing Nazi headstones from VA cemeteries". Military Times. Retrieved January 30, 2021.
- Kaur, Harmeet (December 25, 2020). "Two gravestones with swastikas removed from veterans cemetery in Texas". CNN. Retrieved January 30, 2021.
- Veterans Affairs to remove Nazi headstones in Texas, Utah, Associated Press (June 2, 2020).