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Senate confirms McDonough as VA secretary

New secretary says extensive knowledge of how government works makes up for lack of military experience

Denis McDonough, shown during his confirmation hearing Jan. 27, won Senate confirmation Monday as secretary of  Veterans Affairs.
Denis McDonough, shown during his confirmation hearing Jan. 27, won Senate confirmation Monday as secretary of Veterans Affairs. (Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg)

The Senate voted 87-7 Monday to confirm Denis McDonough to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, making him the second nonveteran in history to helm the massive federal agency that oversees health care and other benefits for the nation’s veterans. 

McDonough, 51, received a muted reception from veterans groups when President Joe Biden announced his nomination in December, as critics picked at McDonough’s lack of military experience. 

But McDonough, who served as deputy national security adviser for the Obama White House before becoming chief of staff from 2013 to 2017, sought to make up for what he lacked in military experience by playing up his knowledge of government during a Jan. 27 hearing before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

McDonough emphasized that he understands government from “both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue,” allowing him to successfully navigate the VA’s vast bureaucracy. 

“As a former White House chief of staff, I bring a deep and extensive knowledge of government to this position,” McDonough said. “And I know when our government is at its best it can help our veterans to live in dignity and security.” 

During the hearing, McDonough committed to addressing some of the issues that have plagued the VA in recent years, including the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment within VA facilities and the department’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

McDonough said he would “lean into” the issue of sexual harassment on “Day One,” to set a culture that underscores that sexual assault within the VA will not be tolerated. 

“Not only the department’s workforce but also our women veterans should be confident that they will be treated with respect” within VA facilities, he said. 

On the coronavirus, McDonough said he would review the VA’s performance to date in response to the pandemic, and ensure that the department’s workforce has adequate personal protective equipment. 

McDonough joins David Shulkin, who served as VA secretary during the Trump administration, as the only other nonveteran to lead the agency.

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