WASHINGTON — His security detail leaked his schedule, putting him at risk. A senior adviser on his team circulated a three-page memo outlining his ouster — with a succession plan. His inner circle held meetings without him and scurried to secret huddles at the White House.
And a trio of rich men who are fixtures at President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla. — but had no experience in the federal government — were his keepers.
These are some of the scenes from David Shulkin’s new book, “It Shouldn’t Be This Hard to Serve Your Country,” an account of his tumultuous 15 months as Trump’s first Veterans Affairs secretary.
The book portrays a toxic, backstabbing culture in Trump’s Washington that, as its title suggests, should give pause to anyone considering public service, Shulkin writes. From his rib-tickling interview with the President-elect to his dismissal by tweet in March 2018, Shulkin says he was blindsided at almost every turn by a multitude of institutions, from his inspector general to the media. And he says veterans are paying the cost.
“The VA was once thought to be the only part of the federal government that was above politics,” Shulkin, 60, writes. But “the environment in Washington had grown so toxic, chaotic and subversive that it became impossible for me to accomplish the important work that our veterans need and deserve.”
Shulkin was VA secretary when attention was drawn to insufficient care at the Manchester, N.H., VA Medical Center.
Whistleblowers claimed nearly 100 veterans became disabled and paralyzed due to substandard care and neglect at the Manchester VA hospital and, in many cases, what became crippling conditions for patients could have been prevented with surgery.
The Office of the Special Counsel, a federal whistleblower agency, found “substantial likelihood” the allegations were true and ordered an investigation. Shulkin immediately removed two hospital administrators and initiated a “top-to-bottom” review of the facility and the accusations.
In his book, Shulkin writes that ultimately his own staff did him in, turning ethics questions about a trip he took to Europe that mixed business with pleasure to their advantage.
The physician who had excelled at turning around ailing hospitals was unprepared for the onslaught.
The score-settling book, to be published Tuesday by a division of Hachette Book Group, is Shulkin’s comeback to the forces that derailed him. He describes a deep state of subordinates within his own inner circle — not of career bureaucrats but political appointees — who assumed outsize power with a singular goal: to privatize veterans’ health care.
The book offers the first inside account of a federal agency from a former Trump Cabinet member.
The “politicals,” who included his communications chief and multiple senior advisers, distrusted him from the start because he was an Obama holdover, Shulkin writes. But, aided by an upstart veterans group funded by the conservative Koch network, there was more to their agenda, he writes: They wanted to turn the vast veterans health-care system over to the private sector, and he got in the way.
“Privatization leading to the dismantling of the department’s extensive health care system is a terrible idea,” he writes. He accuses his critics of pushing “unfettered” access to private care that would cost taxpayers billions of dollars, ignoring the more moderate approach he advocated.
By asserting a moral high ground over his detractors, almost all of whom have left VA, Shulkin opens himself to reliving the acrimony he set out to chronicle.
“While the former VA secretary chooses to profit off his time in office and share outlandish claims about his private conversations with the President, President Trump remains focused on ensuring veterans receive the care they have earned through their incredible sacrifice for our Nation,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement.
VA officials declined to comment. Robert Wilkie, Shulkin’s successor, and the Koch-allied group, Concerned Veterans for America, have long disputed that they want to privatize the system.
CVA senior adviser Dan Caldwell called the claims a “flagrant mischaracterization of CVA’s vision, the work of our dedicated grassroots army, and our policy agenda.”
Shulkin gives few new insights into Trump’s style or thinking. The President stayed on the sidelines of the civil war consuming the agency, supporting Shulkin until bad headlines emerged and the powerful Mar-a-Lago crowd’s disenchantment made him a liability, he says in the book.
At one point, Shulkin writes, Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, an influential White House adviser, consider closing poor-performing VA hospitals by executive order until Shulkin talks them out of it, telling them that Congress must authorize such a drastic decision.
The secretary’s fall from grace was the subject of extensive media reports last year. But his book portrays his sense of betrayal by his staff, a group he had no hand in hiring, and by a White House he says refused to come to his defense.
Shulkin said in an interview that he wrote the book both to “to tell my side of the story” and to “share what I had learned and put down a road map” for anyone considering serving in Washington