President Barack Obama defended Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Wednesday but warned that if allegations of misconduct at VA hospitals prove to be true, he will not hesitate to punish those responsible.
“Anybody found to have manipulated or falsified records at VA facilities has to be held accountable,” Obama said in a rare press conference after meeting with Shinseki in the Oval Office Wednesday morning.
“I will not stand for it, not as commander in chief but also not as an American. None of us should,” the president said. “So if these allegations prove to be true it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful and I will not tolerate it, period.”
Members of Congress and veterans groups have called for Shinskei’s resignation following reports last month that 40 veterans on a secret wait list died while waiting for care at a VA hospital in Phoenix, Ariz.
The VA Inspector General’s office has since expanded its investigation into whether VA officials also manipulated wait times at other facilities across the country in an effort to hide how long it takes veterans to receive treatment.
“I know people are angry and want swift reckoning,” Obama said. “I sympathize with that but we have to let the investigators do their job and get to the bottom of what happened.”
Obama said he still trusts Shinseki, and added that responsibility ultimately rests with him as commander in chief.
“Nobody cares more about our veterans,” Obama said of Shinseki. “He has put his heart and soul into this thing and has taken it very seriously ... He has been a great public servant and a great warrior on behalf of the United States of America. We are going to work with him to solve the problem.”
With midterm elections looming in November, problems at the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs could become a major political liability for Obama and Democrats.
The crisis threatens to overshadow high-profile initiatives by the White House to reduce veteran unemployment, bolster military families and reduce veteran homelessness and eliminate VA’s record backlog of disability claims.
As pressure mounted on the White House to respond to the allegations of falsified wait times and treatment delays at a growing list of VA facilities this week, Obama met with Shinseki and Rob Nabors, the president’s deputy chief of staff, in the Oval Office Wednesday morning. Obama has asked Nabors to help Shinseki review VA policies in Phoenix and nationwide.
Obama’s chief of staff, Denis R. McDonough, also went to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to meet with the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Bernard Sanders, an Independent senator from Vermont.
But Republicans continued to hammer the administration on Wednesday, renewing calls for an independent investigation.
“For weeks, President Barack Obama has been hiding behind talking points and an investigation being led by a political insider, but there are more questions that remain unanswered which is why we need an independent investigation into this troubling matter,” said Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, in a video statement. “At least 40 veterans have died waiting for care and we need to get to the bottom of this tragic mess.”
Obama acknowledged that it often takes too long for veterans to get the care that they need, but he said that isn’t a new development. He ran on
“It’ s been true for decades and it’s been compounded by a decade of war,” Obama said. “We’ve been working really hard” to fix the problem, he said.