Biden is preparing to nominate former White House chief of staff Denis McDonough to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, a sprawling part of the federal government that employs nearly 380,000 workers to care for the country’s military veterans.
The choice of McDonough, who is not a veteran himself, caught veterans groups off guard. His name was not on a list circulated to Capitol Hill and veterans groups, who were led to believe the top contender was former congressman Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), an Iraq War veteran.
“I don’t get it. I don’t understand the nomination,” said Joe Chenelly, executive director of American Veterans, an advocacy group known as AMVETS. “He’s not a veteran. What we really want to understand is Joe Biden’s thinking on this. There were some really good candidates out there. McDonough has no background in health care or experience running a big organization. He is not well-known in the veterans community.”
His nomination, first reported by Politico, was later confirmed by Biden’s transition team.
McDonough was President Barack Obama’s chief of staff during his second term, but he previously served as deputy national security adviser and as chief of staff to the National Security Council. Biden viewed those roles as important in selecting McDonough to head VA, according to a source familiar with the selection, speaking on the condition of anonymity before the formal announcement.
In those roles, McDonough visited Walter Reed National Military Medical Center regularly, and while on the National Security Council met with service members in Iraq and Afghanistan. McDonough’s wife, Kari, is president and co-founder of Vets’ Community Connections, which aims to help veterans and their families reintegrate into communities.
“He is an experienced leader who has helped #DeptVA through its toughest days in 2014 and cares deeply about #veterans,” tweeted David Shulkin, who ran the department under Obama and the first year of Trump’s term. “He will do a great job.”
McDonough will face key challenges in the job to repair the department’s reputation among veterans and members of Congress, after relations with both have frayed under the current secretary, Robert Wilkie.
In addition to Murphy, other candidates for the job included Bob McDonald, who held the position under Obama, and Chet Edwards, a former congressman from Texas.
McDonough’s nomination was included in a news release from Biden’s transition team that also detailed his previously reported plans to nominate Tom Vilsack as secretary of agriculture, Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio) as secretary of housing and urban development, and Katherine Tai as U.S. trade representative.