Joe Biden’s VA pick Denis McDonough plays to mixed review from veterans

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Presumed President-elect Joseph R. Biden’s surprise choice of Denis McDonough, a longtime Washington, D.C. insider with no personal military experience, to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs is getting a mixed reaction, including from veterans organizations.

Mr. McDonough, 51, was well known to Mr. Biden after serving in the Obama White House first as deputy national security adviser and then as Mr. Obama’s chief of staff. His name, however, had not been widely talked to lead the VA amid a strong push to have Mr. Biden select a veteran with experience in the U.S. wars of the 21st century.

If confirmed by the Senate, Mr. McDonough will be only the second non-military veteran to run the massive agency and its sprawling health care network. Physician David Shulkin served for just over a year as President Trump’s VA secretary before being fired in early 2018.

“I assured [Mr. Biden] that I will represent the voices of all veterans at every level, on every issue, every day. Those who have served this nation, their caregivers and survivors should expect nothing less,” Mr. McDonough tweeted.

Mr. Biden, whose transition team has been criticized for lacking military veterans, has now managed to create political headaches with his choices to head both the Pentagon and the VA. Even some Democrats are balking at low-key retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to as defense secretary, who will need a waiver from the ban on recently retired military officers heading the department before he can be confirmed.

The rumor mill for the Veterans Administration post had largely focused on post-9/11 military veterans such as Illinois Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth; former Rep. Patrick Murphy, Pennsylvania Democrat; and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor and 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg.

Despite Mr. McDonough’s reputation as a low-key, able manager, Joe Chenelly, the national executive director of the veterans organization AMVETS, said he was “shocked” and “honestly, disappointed” by the choice of Mr. McDonough.

“My biggest concern is how much does he know about the VA? Does he know to whom to turn to get things done?” said Mr. Chenelly, a former Marine who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. “We have a pandemic and the VA has an important role in responding to it. Not really the time for someone brand-new to the space.”

Mr. McDonough does have supporters, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the progressive group VoteVets. VoteVets senior adviser Will Fischer, an Iraq war veteran, called on the Senate to swiftly confirm him.

“What the VA needs, more than anything, is an experienced manager with deep depth of knowledge about how the agency works, how it interacts with other agencies and how to quickly build the agency back, even better,” Mr. Fischer said. “Having a former White House chief of staff take that role, who comes from the national security realm, ensures that veterans will have someone with no learning curve and who know how to get ‘under the hood’ to fix the agency and make it better.”

Gen. Austin, Mr. Biden’s pick for secretary of defense, is facing some pushback on Capitol Hill. At least three Democratic senators — Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Jon Tester of Montana — have indicated they will not vote for the waiver allowing him to lead the Pentagon.

A spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars said it would be “premature” to comment on the selection of Mr. McDonough before the Senate confirmation. But Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, called the choice of Mr. McDonough a “huge, easily avoidable fumble.”

“Instead of an inspiring leader who embodies the potential of vets, we have a pick who is not one of us. It’s patronizing,” Mr. Rieckhoff tweeted. “It’s also an insider pick. To many, it will feel ‘swampy.’”

Mr. McDonough made a point of going to the field regularly to meet directly with service members in Iraq and Afghanistan while he was on the National Security Council, the Biden transition team said.

While they are disappointed at the choice, Mr. Chenelly said AMVETS is ready to listen to what Mr. McDonough has to say at his confirmation hearing.

“Whoever is running the VA, we will be there to support,” he said.

Phillip Carter, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and Army veterans, said he has known Mr. McDonough for almost 15 years.

“He’s a crisis-tested public servant who has worked at the highest levels and knows (better than almost anyone) how to effectively pull the levers of government to support and serve veterans and their families,” Mr. Carter tweeted.

Mr. Rieckhoff said the VA pick could have been an “uplifting, inspiring, exciting moment for 19 million vets and their families.”

Biden is not having a good week. He’s nominating a general for secretary of defense and a civilian for secretary of veterans affairs,” Mr. Rieckhoff tweeted. “It has to be asked: What the hell is he thinking?”

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