President-elect Joe Biden has selected former White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough as his pick for the next Veterans Affairs secretary, Military Times has learned.
If confirmed, the 51-year-old McDonough would be only the second non-veteran ever to hold the post. He would be the second member of former President Barack Obama’s national security team to be given a Cabinet level post in the new Biden administration, following Tony Blinken, who Biden has tapped to be his Secretary of State.
According to a source familiar with the choice, Biden opted for McDonough because of his past in crisis management in the Obama administration and his depth of knowledge of government operations.
In an official statement from the transition team, Biden praised McDonough as “a lifelong public servant who has been engaged at the highest level in shaping domestic and foreign policy.”
“Through his service as White House chief of staff, deputy national security adviser, and chief of staff of the National Security Council, McDonough helped lead the Obama-Biden administration’s work on behalf of military families and veterans, and earned the trust of the president-elect as a first-class manager with the knowledge and vision to deliver results.”
Despite his defense policy ties, McDonough was not a major public figure on veterans issues during the Obama administration. As chief of staff, he did oversee staffing changes and policy responses to the department’s 2014 wait-time scandal, which resulted in the resignation of then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
After Shinseki was replaced by Bob McDonald, McDonough worked closely with the new VA leadership team behind the scenes to reform operations and restore public trust in the massive health care system. Sources said Biden was also impressed by McDonough’s personal connection with troops and military families during his time working on national security policy.
Former VA Secretary David Shulkin — the only other non-veteran to serve as VA secretary — on Thursday hailed McDonough’s selection.
“He is an experienced leader who has helped [the department] through its toughest days in 2014 and cares deeply about veterans,” he wrote on social media. “He will do a great job.”
Members of Biden’s transition team spent Thursday morning reaching out to advocates to inform them of the pick, expected to be formally announced later this afternoon.
Veterans groups have traditionally pushed for veterans in the senior leadership role, arguing their shared military experience is key in understanding the health care needs and post-service challenges facing the community.
However, in 2017, major veterans groups strongly endorsed President Donald Trump’s choice of Shulkin, then head of the Veterans Health Administration, to take over the top department leadership post. Whether McDonough will receive the same support remains to be seen.
“We are surprised by this pick, no way to deny that,” said AMVETS National Executive Director Joe Chenelly. “We were expecting a veteran, maybe a post-9/11 veteran, maybe a woman veteran, or maybe a veteran who knows the VA exceptionally well.
“We are looking forward to hearing from President-Elect Biden on his thinking behind this nomination.”
McDonough’s wife, Kari, is co-founder and president of Vets Community Connections, a non-profit focused on helping veterans and military families by “expanding their local networks and involving all parts of the community.”
Former Democratic Pennsylvania Rep. Patrick Murphy, former VA Secretary Bob McDonald and current Democratic Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth had all been rumored to be under consideration for the post.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.