Despite being asked the question several times Thursday by multiple reporters, White House press secretary Jay Carney could not answer whether President Barack Obama has confidence in embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.
The questioning came one day after the VA independent watchdog released a preliminary report that found 1,700 veterans were waiting for care at the Phoenix clinic, but were not on the waiting list, while some had to wait for 115 days to get an appointment. The findings have prompted a round of both Republican and Democratic lawmakers to demand Shinseki's resignation.
White House deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors is working with Shinseki on a separate internal investigation.
“A very simple yes-or-no question: Does the president have confidence in General Shinseki?” ABC News reporter John Karl asked Carney.
Carney said Obama is confident that Shinseki has served the country well.
“The president believes and is confident that Secretary Shinseki has served this nation admirably, heroically as a soldier, as a general and that he has accomplished some very important things as secretary of Veterans Affairs, and I listed them, but they include extending education benefits, reducing veterans homelessness, and reducing the size of the backlog for disability claims while expanding vastly the number of veterans who can make a claim,” Carney said.
Karl followed: “Does the president right now have confidence in Secretary Shinseki, yes or no? Very simple yes-or-no question. He told us last week he did have confidence -- does he have confidence now?
Carney said, “What I would point you to is what the president said on Secretary Shinseki. I'm not going to improve upon his words on this regard. He talked about accountability. I understand the wordplay, but I think what is more important.”
Karl shot back, “It's not wordplay. It's a very simple question. Does he have confidence in Secretary Shinseki?”
Carney stressed that fixing the VA's problem was the top priority.
“On the issue you're referring to when it comes to the revelations that have come to light about Phoenix and other veterans health centers, the president was deeply troubled by what we saw in the interim report from the inspector general and he awaits the preliminary report from Secretary Shinseki on the internal audit that the secretary is conducting with the assistance of roughly 200 individuals,” Carney said.
“He made clear to Secretary Shinseki last week and he made clear as a general principle to everyone who serves this administration and serves the country that he believes in accountability,” Carney continued. “But he also believes first and foremost on this issue in the importance of making sure that we keep our eye on the ball, which is making sure that our veterans are getting taken care of and that the focus is on them and when there has been a failure to do that in a timely manner we need to take action to fix that problem and focus principally on that.
Citing unnamed administration officials who said Shinseki was “on probation”, Karl asked, “What does it mean for a cabinet secretary to be on probation?”
Carney said, “I would urge you rather than go with what an unnamed official said to go with what a named official, what Barack Obama said.”
Carney added later: “I'm not going to predict or hypothesize about the future yet. I know he has not received the preliminary report from the VA. He receive the interim report from the inspector general and I think he conveyed clearly what he thought of that.”