Senate Confirms Nonveteran To Head Biden’s Veterans Affairs Dept

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On Monday, the Senate approved Denis McDonough as President Joe Biden’s Veterans Affairs secretary with an 87-7 vote.

McDonough, 51, has never served in the U.S. Armed Forces, nor does he have healthcare experience. His expertise includes global affairs and navigating through the federal governmental bureaucracy. He was reportedly chosen because he had worked closely with Biden in the Obama administration and knew how to get things done in D.C.

The Washington Post quoted the Biden transition team as saying, “McDonough knows how to pull every lever of government to effectively serve our veterans and their families.”

All of the Democrats supported McDonough’s confirmation. The no votes came from Republican Senators Tom Cotton (AK), Ted Cruz (TX), Joni Ernst (IA), Bill Hagerty (TN), Josh Hawley (MO), Roger Marshall (KN), and Rick Scott (FL).

McDonough takes over the second-largest federal agency with nearly 380,000 employees and a budget of $263 billion. McDonough previously said, “the dedicated men and women who work tirelessly to serve the department have been impeded by mismanagement, staff shortfalls, leadership gaps, and IT systems failures.” The VA provides benefits and support to veterans after their service and operates a healthcare network serving the 9 million enrolled.

According to McDonough, President Biden directed him “to focus on getting our veterans through this pandemic.” More than 8,700 veterans who were diagnosed with COVID-19 have died, the department said.

Previously, McDonough was a senior adviser on foreign policy affairs for President Obama’s transition team and Chief of Staff of the National Security Council. He later became Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor and was in the White House Situation Room on May 2, 2011, watching the Navy Seal raid that killed Osama bin Laden in real-time. In the famous photo, McDonough is seated next to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In 2013, Obama appointed McDonough as his Chief of Staff.

The Associated Press reports:

McDonough was credited with helping Obama try to bridge divides on Capitol Hill, including around one of his most substantial second-term legislative achievements: the Veterans Choice Act. The legislation, for which President Donald Trump tries to take credit, gave former service members more options to seek care and the VA secretary more authority to fire underperforming staffers.

The bill came about following exposes during the Obama administration into mismanagement at some VA hospitals and mounting complaints by advocacy groups. As chief of staff, McDonough was also deeply involved in an overhaul of VA leadership after the scandals, which led to the ouster of the department’s secretary.

During his confirmation hearing last month, McDonough said he was “ready for this mission.”

“As a former White House chief of staff, I bring a deep and extensive knowledge of government,” he added. “I understand how to untangle and solve large, complex challenges – both across and within large agencies.”

He becomes the second VA secretary who has not served in the military. David Shulkin, who former President Donald Trump appointed, was the first. Trump went on to fire him via Twitter.

After McDonough was nominated in December, he said Biden “made it clear what he wants me to do,” quoting Biden as saying: “Fight like hell for our veterans.”

“We’re going to fight like hell to give our veterans and their families the healthcare, respect and dignity that they deserve,” McDonough said. “That means helping our veterans build civilian lives of meaning and opportunity; making our VA even more welcoming to all veterans, including our women veterans, veterans of color, and LGBTQ+ veterans.”

Still, some leaders of veterans groups reportedly expressed disappointment when Biden chose McDonough, emphasizing his non-veteran status.

“Is this just a crony pick, or an afterthought? He has zero affiliation with veterans,” one anonymous veterans advocate told The Washington Post. “No one’s saying you have to be a hard core vet to lead VA, but we have someone here who is not a vet who doesn’t understand the culture of the only Cabinet-level agency with a built-in constituency that’s actually engaged and vocal.”

McDonough is a professor in the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame, which aims to prepare “new generations of students for skilled, effective and ethical global professional leadership.” He was a featured speaker at the 2017 Notre Dame Forum, “Going Global: Exploring the Challenges and Opportunities of Globalization.” According to the school, McDonough joined the staff in August 2017 and will remain on the Notre Dame faculty on academic leave.

As ABC News reported, McDonough also recently worked for an advisory firm called Macro Advisory Partners, which according to a spokesperson with the company, “interprets global developments for its clients and analyses their impact on business strategies.”

More details from ABC News:

The company, with a roster that includes at least ten Obama-era officials, does not disclose its clients. Its website makes oblique references to work it does for “an industry-leading multinational consumer goods company” with a footprint in China, and “a global financial services company” doing business in Middle Eastern markets. …

In his disclosure form, McDonough reported providing strategic advice to GlaxoSmithKline, PWC, MasterCard, Deutsche Telekom and Apple, but did not specify whether those were Macro Advisory Partners clients. A Biden transition official later clarified to ABC News that those companies were his clients at Macro Advisory Partners. McDonough reported earning at least $248,000 in salary from the firm over the last two years.

ABC reported McDonough “has agreed to step down from his position at the firm and recuse himself from any matters related to his former Macro Advisory Partners clients.” CIA Director nominee William Burns and incoming National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan also recently worked for the company, which is based in London and New York.

McDonough’s wife, Kari, is co-founder and president of Vets’ Community Connections, a nonprofit that, according to its website, “assists veterans, military and their families in successfully integrating into their community by expanding their local networks and involving all parts of the community.”

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