Former Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin had a second European trip with his wife scheduled for April — a 10-day trip justified by a three-day medical conference at the Vatican — and he did he did not cancel it until he knew his job was in jeopardy over an earlier nine-day European trip based around 3.5 days of work, three senior officials said.
The Daily Caller News Foundation had asked the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) about the Vatican trip before Shulkin was fired following travel-related scandals, after hearing about it from a source. TheDCNF did not publish a story focused on on the trip because Shulkin denied its existence in person and a spokeswoman denied it in writing.
Shulkin personally drafted a denial and ordered a mid-level communications staffer, Lydia Blaha, to send it under her name, emails obtained by TheDCNF show. “The Secretary receives numerous invitations each week and cannot possibly attend all of these events,” Shulkin wrote in the third person. “He has declined this invitation.”
Emails show that the her boss James Hutton — who was one of the VA’s top career, non-political spokesmen for years and now works as a political appointee — told her that if Shulkin wanted to claim that he declined the invitation even though the trip was “apparently scheduled,” it should be cited to the secretary.
The Daily Caller first asked Shulkin about the trip in a videotaped interview on Feb. 16 after a source told the news outlet that he had recently seen it on the secretary’s itinerary. Shulkin merely said, “That is not happening.”
TheDCNF asked the VA’s press office on Feb. 21 to reiterate in writing that no such trip had ever been planned. An email came back from Blaha, a traveling press aide who had accompanied Shulkin to the interview at The Daily Caller’s offices, who wrote, “The Secretary was invited to speak at the Vatican Conference on Regenerative Medicine in Rome. This invitation is related to specific clinical genomics work VA is undertaking to help veterans with a leading medical center. The Secretary receives numerous invitations each week and unfortunately cannot attend all of these events. Due to this, he declined this invitation.”
As a result of the assurance, TheDCNF never wrote a story focused on the second European junket — key information as Shulkin’s future hung in the balance.
A second senior official then independently said that he had seen the documentation proving that the trip was on the books. The source said Shulkin had actively sought to go on the Vatican trip, planned on taking his wife along, and until the aftermath of the IG report got bad, refused his advisers’ pleas that he cancel it. Shulkin knew before its release that the IG report would focus on his previous Europe trip before it came out, The Washington Post reported, and even hired a PR firm to manage the fallout.
TheDCNF has now obtained internal emails showing that Shulkin personally wrote the emailed denial and sent it with the header: “Lydia- please send an email to Luke at luke@
Blaha forwarded the message to Hutton saying “Please don’t share this with the others until I’m able to call you and explain.” Hutton sent the message to his boss, political appointee John Ullyot, saying, “The Secretary has instructed Lydia to provide a response to Luke Rosiak about his trip that was apparently scheduled for the Vatican. She asked me what to do. If she provides the answer it would have to be attributed to him. Any thoughts?”
Ultimately, a statement extremely similar to what Shulkin drafted was sent under Blaha’s name.
President Trump fired Shulkin March 28 following an IG report that began with a seemingly elongated and expensive trip to Europe but its most damning allegations were about dishonesty: The IG report alleges that Shulkin’s top aide forged an email to have taxpayer funds cover his wife’s travel; Shulkin made a misleading statement to the press about the trip; and his wife may have tried to establish a favorable paper trail after the fact.
Soon after Shulkin was fired, the second source told TheDCNF that he had seen documentation showing that the secretary had confirmed his attendance with conference organizers. On April 2, TheDCNF told Blaha it would be filing a Freedom of Information Act request for records about the trip and asked if she was still standing behind her statement. A VA official with knowledge of the secretary’s travel then sent TheDCNF a statement acknowledging that Shulkin had accepted the invitation:
David Shulkin was scheduled to attend the Fourth International Vatican Conference, from April 26 – 28, 2018. His attendance was confirmed with the event organizers. VA staff had been researching flight and hotel options since late December of 2017, and planned to have Shulkin fly business class at an estimated cost of $11,913.
Despite the fact that the conference was just three days, Shulkin was planning to remain in Europe for ten days from April 20 through April 29. Three specific VA protective services employees had already been assigned to go on the trip and work on an overall security plan had also begun.
Shulkin did not cancel the trip until Feb. 15, 2018, the day after the VA Inspector General released its report on his 11-day European trip last year. Shulkin personally drafted and ordered the release of the statement on the Vatican trip that was sent to the Daily Caller [sic] Feb. 23.
His mandate as secretary was largely to turn around the VA from a culture of dishonesty and evidence-manipulation following a massive scandal in which managers systematically falsified wait-time data in order to obtain bonuses, which prevented overseers from realizing that veterans were dying awaiting care. He has since claimed that he was fired for political reasons.
The emails are below, where DJS is David J. Shulkin.
Sent: Thursday, February 22, 2018 5:58:06 PM
To: Blaha, Lydia B.
Lydia- please send an email to Luke at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please tell him that the Secretary was invited to the speak at the Vatican Conference on Regenerative Medicine in Rome. This invitation related to specific clinical genomics work VA is undertaking to help veterans with a leading medical center. The Secretary receives numerous invitations each week and cannot possibly attend all of these events. He has declined this invitation.
From: Blaha, Lydia B.
Sent: Thursday, February 22, 2018 3:07:48 PM
To: Hutton, James
Subject: FW: (No Subject)
Please don’t share this with the others until I’m able to call you and explain. Will be at the hotel in about 10-15min
From: Hutton, James
To: Ullyot, John
Date: Thu, 22 Feb 2018 23:48:53
Subject: FW: (No Subject)
The Secretary has instructed Lydia to provide a response to Luke Rosiak about his trip that was apparently scheduled for the Vatican.
She asked me what to do.
If she provides the answer it would have to be attributed to him.
From: Blaha, Lydia B.
To: Rosiak, Luke
Date: Fri, 23 Feb 2018 09:38
Wanted to clarify something regarding the confusion about the Secretary’s travel schedule.
The Secretary was invited to speak at the Vatican Conference on Regenerative Medicine in Rome. This invitation is related to specific clinical genomics work VA is undertaking to help veterans with a leading medical center. The Secretary receives numerous invitations each week and unfortunately cannot attend all of these events. Due to this, he declined this invitation.
Have a good day!
Content created by The Daily Caller News Foundation is available without charge to any eligible news publisher that can provide a large audience. For licensing opportunities of our original content, please contact email@example.com.