President Barack Obama got angry Wednesday after weeks of allegations of misconduct at Veterans Affairs facilities, but defended his embattled Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki — for now, at least.
Speaking to reporters from the White House in his first public remarks on the subject in nearly a month, Obama said he has ordered Shinseki to conduct a review alongside a independent inspector general review, adding if the allegations prove to be true, "It is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it. Period.” Last month CNN reported that the VA health facility in Phoenix had been cooking the books to cover up long wait times, potentially leading to the deaths of 40 veterans, allegations that have now been made about other facilities around the country.
“Once we know the facts, I assure you that if there is misconduct it will be punished," Obama said, acknowledging he doesn't yet know how widespread the problem is. "I don't yet know are there a lot of other facilities that have been cooking the books or is this just an episodic problem," he said.
Obama said Shinseki will present him with the preliminary results of his review, which has expanded to all VA facilities, next week. Obama also tasked Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors to lead a review of the entire Veterans Health Administration, which has long been plagued by backlogs and delays. Nabors will travel to Phoenix later Wednesday after meeting with veterans' groups in Washington.
Obama sought to highlight the progress his administration has made in bringing down the disability claims backlog and the veterans unemployment rate, crediting Shinseki with much of the progress, but witholding his full backing until the completion of the investigations.
"Ric Shinseki I think serves this country because he cares deeply about veterans and he cares deeply about the mission," Obama said. "And I know that Ric's attitude is if he does not think he can do a good job on this, and if he thinks he's let our veterans down, then I'm sure that he is not going to be interested in continuing to serve."
The allegations have become the latest political headache for the president, with Republican lawmakers alleging the White House should have known about efforts to misreport wait times sooner.
Obama called on Congress to put partisanship aside as the investigation continues. "It is important that our veterans don't become another political football, especially when so many of them are receiving care right now," he said.