4:47 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much and good afternoon. Thank you to Vice President Pence, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Chairman Johnny Isakson, Senator Thom Tillis — thank you, Thom. Johnny, you’ve been working hard helping our vets. Thank you very much. Great.
We’re thrilled to be here for the swearing-in of our new Secretary of Veterans Affairs — a very, very tough and important position — Robert Wilkie. Robert, I want to congratulate you.
ACTING SECRETARY WILKIE: Thank you, sir.
THE PRESIDENT: Fantastic. Since day one, my administration has been focused on serving the men and women who make freedom possible: our great veterans. These American heroes deserve only the best, and they will have it under Robert Wilkie. I have no doubt about it. I think the three of us have no doubt about it.
Robert is joined today by his beloved wife of 28 years, Julie — thank you, Julie — his son Adam, his sister Dana, nephew Ian, sister-in-law Carla Council, and his brother-in-law Stephen Harmon and his wife Susan Harmon. Thank you all for being here. Thank you. We’re proud of him, right? Anybody not proud? Because let me know now, please. (Laughter.)
Robert Wilkie is the proud son of an Army veteran, an artillery officer raised on the base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. That’s a great place. On his daily walk to high school with the woman who is now his wife, he passed by the Fayetteville VA hospital, which bore the inscription: “The Price of Freedom is Visible Here.” It made a big impact. It was a price Robert saw firsthand through his own father, who was gravely injured in combat during the Vietnam War.
Robert went on to serve as an officer in both the Air Force and the Navy, then as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs, and as Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. Robert also serves with distinction as Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs. And General Mattis is here someplace. Where’s General Mattis?
GENERAL MATTIS: Right here, sir.
THE PRESIDENT: He’s the only one not happy about this, because I took him away from General Mattis. Right? (Laughter.)
GENERAL MATTIS: (Inaudible.)
THE PRESIDENT: General Kelly — who, by the way, one year today, right? — became Chief of Staff. General Kelly — John Kelly. In case anybody has never heard of him. (Laughs.) That’s great.
And, General Mattis, I’m sorry to have done that, but we have no choice. The vets are calling, right?
GENERAL MATTIS: We’re with you, sir.
THE PRESIDENT: So thank you, General.
As our new VA Secretary, I have absolute confidence that Robert will continue our historic progress on behalf of our nation’s veterans.
Last year, we passed the landmark VA Accountability Act. These two people — along with others — but these two people really led it along. And they gave us — which really gave us the authority, for the first time, to remove federal employees who mistreat our veterans, of which, unfortunately and incredibly, there were plenty. They’re gone now.
I also signed legislation allowing veterans to use their GI Bill education benefits at any point during their lifetimes.
We established the promised White House VA Hotline, which we have working right now. Every VA medical center offers same-day emergency mental health care as well.
We have greatly expanded telehealth and walk-in clinics, and we are processing veterans’ disability claims more quickly, by far, than ever before.
Earlier this year, with Robert’s help, we passed Veterans Choice. That was the one I wanted so badly, that we all wanted so badly. This eluded us for 40 years? 50 years? I mean, it’s eluded us forever. Forever.
If the veterans can’t get care, and the kind of care that they need at a VA facility, they have the right to go immediately and see a private doctor and we pay for it. And by doing that, we save, by the way, a lot of money. We take care of our veterans properly.
So between Accountability and the VA Choice — look, Accountability, they said, was tough to get approved. Forty-five years they tried, they couldn’t. VA Choice, they actually said, was tougher — and we got them both. So I just want to thank you guys. And, Robert, thanks for your help.
No veteran should ever have to endure long waiting times for the care they have so richly earned. So that’s where VA Choice will come along. We will not rest until our veterans have the highest-quality care anywhere on Earth.
Secretary Wilkie, I want to congratulate you and congratulate you strongly. You’re an outstanding man. Also, a great football player, which nobody knows. But we won’t discuss that, right? He was a good, tough player. I know that you’ll work night and day to fulfill our sacred duty to protect those who protect us. Our vets are very, very lucky, and we are very lucky to have him.
So, Robert, I want to ask Vice President Pence to administer the oath. And this is something very dear to my heart and to all of our hearts. And you have to do a great job. We’re just counting — so many people — hundreds of thousands of people are counting on you. It’s a tough job but a beautiful job.
Congratulations. Congratulations — very much.
Thank you very much. Thank you. Please, say a few words.
ACTING SECRETARY WILKIE: Well, Mr. President, Vice President Pence, Secretary Mattis, Chairman Isakson, Senator Tillis, family, colleagues, and friends: I am deeply grateful to President Trump for the opportunity to serve for him and for America’s veterans.
I’m going to take a speech — speaker’s choice here and digress from the prepared remarks.
As the President noted, I am the son of a gravely wounded combat soldier, I have been an officer in two services, a senior leader in the Pentagon, and, for eight weeks, the Acting Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Acting Secretary is something that the Jesuits would have told me is being in ecclesiastical limbo. (Laughter.) But in this case, I was amazed and stunned by the amount of time the President of the United States spent with me on the phone, in this office, and at dinner, talking about veterans, asking about veterans, and showing me a commitment that I have not seen in my 23 years in and out of this business, on the part of a President of the United States, when it comes to the care of those who have protected America for so many years.
So I thank you, sir, for that great honor.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. That’s very nice. Thank you very much.
ACTING SECRETARY WILKIE: I’m also grateful to Chairman Isakson and Senator Tillis and the Committee on Veterans Affairs, as well as our veterans service organizations for their vote of confidence.
But I’m also humbled today by the presence of three men, three men for whom I have been privileged to work for and with during my career: Secretary Mattis, General John Kelly, and my friend, Thom Tillis. I would not be here without their support and inspiration. They are what all of us who have come through the military world strive to be, and that is a servant leader.
Outside of the military oaths that I have taken, this is the third time that I have taken the federal oath of office. And just as in 2006 and 2017, my wife Julia is with me. We have known each other since we were youngsters in North Carolina, and nothing that I have done would have been possible without her.
As the President noted, our high school was two blocks — three blocks away from the Fayetteville VA Hospital, and that experience has left a lasting impression upon me.
Mr. Vice President, as the head of the Space Council, my son Adam is here. He is playing hooky from his internship at the Goddard Space Flight Center. My daughter Megan is not with us today. She is in her first day as an intern at the Smithsonian.
The Bible that I will take my oath on reminds me of the 100th anniversary of the end of the war to end all wars. It was a Bible taken into battle by my wife’s grandfather who had probably never ventured beyond three or four counties in North and South Carolina. But by the time he was 18, he was marching up the Champs-Élysées into the cauldron of the Meuse-Argonne.
On another part of that battlefield was a young captain of field artillery — my great grandfather — who left a small-town law practice in Cleveland, Mississippi to join up with the All American Division, which, by the way, had a reluctant soldier, a scratch farmer from Pall Mall, Tennessee by way of Buncombe County, North Carolina, who would not only earn the Medal of Honor but go on to the be the greatest hero of that war. Private Onslow Bullard, Captain A.D. Somerville, and Sergeant Alvin York — ordinary Americans called upon to do extraordinary things. It is their dependence — descendants whom we are honored to serve. Millions of ordinary Americans who have answered a special call for us.
Mr. President, I am humbled by your confidence. I am humbled by the prospect of serving those who have borne the battle, those American men and women who have sacrificed so much.
I thank you, and I look forward to this great adventure. And I thank you for your courtesy.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, Robert, very much.
ACTING SECRETARY WILKIE: Thank you, sir.
THE PRESIDENT: Great job. (Applause.)
(The oath is administered.) (Applause.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Congratulations.
5:00 P.M. EDT