By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump ousted Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin on Wednesday in response to heavy criticism and nominated his personal physician, Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, to replace him in the latest turnover among Trump's team.
White House officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Shulkin had become a distraction due to a constant wave of speculation about his future and said he would be leaving in the next day or two. They said an undersecretary at the Department of Defense, Robert Wilkie, will be the acting secretary.
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Shulkin had drawn fire for a damning report from the inspector general of the Department of Veterans Affairs. It found that during a trip to London and Denmark he improperly accepted tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament and his chief of staff made false statements so Shulkin's wife could travel at government expense.
One official said the criticism of Shulkin was "making it harder for him to carry out the duties of secretary of the VA, which is something the president has made clear is a big priority for him."
Jackson, a rear admiral of the U.S. Navy, has been working as a presidential physician since the George W. Bush administration, and has been the lead doctor monitoring Trump's health since Trump became president.
Jackson gave Trump a clean bill of health early this year after giving the president a physical. He put him on a diet to lose some weight and directed him to get some exercise. Aides said Trump has been eating more fish and fewer cheeseburgers lately.
A Texas native who has been on active duty since 1995, Jackson served during the U.S.-led war in Iraq as an emergency medicine physician in Taqaddum, Iraq.
"Admiral Jackson is highly trained and qualified and as a service member himself, he has seen firsthand the tremendous sacrifice our veterans make and has a deep appreciation for the debt our great country owes them," Trump said.
A White House official said Trump warmed to Jackson and had been aware that Shulkin had sought to make Jackson the VA undersecretary last year.
"The president wants somebody who gives him the best possible care to go over and give that same care to the veterans. That's how strongly he feels about getting them represented properly," the official said.
Trump said he appreciated Shulkin's work, including passage of the VA Accountability Act."He has been a great supporter of veterans across the country and I am grateful for his service," Trump said in a statement.
U.S. Representative Phil Roe, a Republican who chairs the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said he hated to see Shulkin go but respected Trump's decision.
"At the end of the day, cabinet secretaries serve at the pleasure of the president," he said.
Will Fischer, director of government relations for the VoteVets lobby group, said his group hopes Jackson will oppose any attempt to privatize the VA or its health services, a concept that Republicans talk about occasionally.
"If Dr. Jackson can do that, immediately, he will do a lot to help his chances at confirmation," Fischer said.
The VA oversees healthcare and benefits going to roughly 20 million U.S. military veterans. The Veterans Health Administration, the largest integrated healthcare system in the United States, provides care at more than 1,200 facilities, including 170 VA Medical Centers, to more than 9 million veterans.
Trump praised Shulkin as "fantastic" when he chose him to head the VA in January 2017. Trump, who promised improved veterans' care during his presidential campaign, last year said the department had made "tremendous progress" under Shulkin.
But support for him at the White House eroded quickly in recent weeks as Trump grew weary of the drumbeat of negative headlines about him.
Shulkin said after the release of the inspector general's report that he would comply with its recommendations, including reimbursing the government for his wife's $4,312 airfare and paying his friend for the Wimbledon tickets. The department announced two days after the report was issued that Shulkin's chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, would retire.
Shulkin joins a long list of senior officials who have either resigned or been fired since Trump took office in January 2017. Others include Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, FBI chief James Comey and FBI No. 2 Andrew McCabe, Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon, national security advisers H.R. McMaster and Michael Flynn, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, communications directors Hope Hicks and Anthony Scaramucci, and economic adviser Gary Cohn.
(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Leslie Adler and James Dalgleish)