President-elect Joe Biden is nominating Denis McDonough, who was Obama's White House chief of staff, as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, a sprawling agency that has presented organizational challenges for both parties over the years. But he never served in the armed forces, a fact noted by a leading veterans organization.
McDonough is an experienced manager who was chief of staff throughout Obama's second term. McDonough was previously Obama's deputy national security adviser, including during the Navy SEAL raid in 2011 that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, and was a longtime congressional staffer.
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.
"We are surprised by this pick. No way to deny that," said Joe Chenelly, national executive director of AMVETS, or American Veterans. "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, co-founded the nonprofit group Vets' Community Connections, which helps veterans and their families develop stronger ties to their communities.
Biden is balancing numerous priorities as he fills out his Cabinet, including making good on his pledge to have a diverse group of top advisers. That's created some tensions over top jobs, including agriculture secretary.
Allies of Fudge made no secret of their desire for her to lead the department, given its oversight of food stamps and other programs meant to address food insecurity — one of her longtime priorities. Instead, Biden went with Tom Vilsack, a longtime friend and advocate for Democrats paying more attention to rural America.
A transition official said Vilsack and Fudge spoke Wednesday to lay the groundwork for cooperation between their two agencies on those and other initiatives.