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@THISHOUR WITH BERMAN AND MICHAELA

V.A. Secretary Eric Shinseki Resigns; Live Coverage of President Obama's Press Conference

Aired May 30, 2014 - 11:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: And it's Friday. Thank you so much for joining me. It's been a pleasure being with you. I'm Ana Cabrera.

Let's get to "@ THIS HOUR" with Berman and Michaela. It starts right now.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCVHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm John Berman. Michaela Pereira is off today.

I want to show you a live picture of the White House, because inside right now, President Obama is meeting in the Oval Office with his embattled Veterans Affairs secretary. Eric Shinseki walked in as cabinet secretary. Will he walk out a cabinet secretary? We'll find out one way or another, any minute.

Just this morning, the retired four-star general apologized to veterans as demands for his resignation intensify. At a speech for Coalition of Homeless Veterans, the secretary vowed to enact sweeping changes to counter the growing scandal over wait times in V.A. facilities. They will eliminate performance bonuses in 2014 for senior executives and removing patient wait times from V.A. employee performance reviews. The secretary said he was misled about the scope of the problems.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GENERAL ERIC SHINSEKI (RETIRED), VETERANS AFFAIRS SECRETARY: I was too trusting of some, and I accept it as accurate reports that I now know to have been misleading with regard to patient wait times.

I can't explain the lack of integrity among some of the leaders of our health care facilities. This is something I rarely encountered during 38 years in uniform. And so I will not defend it because it is indefensible.

But I can take responsibility for it. And I do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: The secretary and the president, as we said, are meeting right now in the oval office in that speech we just showed you this morning. The V.A. secretary laid out his plans to fix what he called systemic problems in the V.A., talking in the present tense, as if he's still running the agency and plans to. He said, quote, "In the days ahead, we can do this." That does not sound like a man ready to resign.

But, yesterday, President Obama said he was gearing up for a heart-to- heart with his embattled V.A. secretary.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'll have a serious conversation with him about whether he thinks that he is prepared and has the capacity to take on the job of fixing it. I don't want any veteran to not be given the kind of services that they deserve.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Joining me now to talk about this, senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta and Drew Griffin who broke this scandal on CNN.

Jim, this sounds like an unprecedented situation to me. Secretary Shinseki says I'm not going to resign. He's saying, I'm not going to resign. You have to fire me. The White House seems to be saying, We're not going to fire you. You need to quit.

So how does this issue get resolved here, Jim?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, I think that's definitely one scenario that we could see right now. There are a lot of different moving parts, and one of them is Eric Shinseki. You heard that speech earlier this morning before that group for homeless vets. And I was struck by a couple things.

And you laid out a few of them, the secretary of Veterans Affairs saying to that crowd that he's been lied to by top officials inside the V.A., that he's not seen the kind of cover-ups that have been going on at V.A. facilities in his entire 38-year military career. Those are extraordinary things to hear from a secretary of foreign affairs.

And keep in mind he's saying these things even though there have been, and Drew Griffin can back this up, I.G. reports, inspector general reports, going back some 10 years saying that these wait times have been an issue and that the -- whether or not the cover-up of wait times has been going on for all of these years that those wait times may not be reliable data for officials at Veterans Affairs.

And so there's a question here as to whether or not Shinseki has really been in touch with what's going on inside his own department. And I assume that's going to be a topic of conversation that he's going to be having with the president, that he's having with the president right now.

One other thing I was struck by, John, in that interview with "Live with Kelly and Michael," the president referring to Shinseki as an American hero. I think if he is going to let him go today that that was a moment there where he was trying to show the general who served in Vietnam, was wounded in Vietnam, the due respect that should come to a general in a situation like this.

Firing a general is not the same as firing a secretary of Veterans Affairs. And I'm being told by my photographer, Peter, right now that the president is going to make a statement in the Briefing Room. What time do we think that's going to be? We don't -- 11:15, here in the Briefing Room, so things moving very quickly at the White House, John.

One thing we should point out, Shinseki is gone, is that right? Is that confirmed? We can now report to you that secretary of veterans affairs Eric Shinseki has resigned -- has left the White House. Excuse me. All right, we're live on the air and being given information as we're moving along here. I apologize.

But we're going to have a briefing from the president here in just a few moments, John. One thing that we did hear in the last 24 hours is this White House not expressing confidence in Eric Shinseki. I think that's a major development in all of this in terms of the fate of Eric Shinseki, John.

BERMAN: Jim Acosta, thank you so much. Just to recap, what we do know is that President Obama will be making a statement in the White House Briefing Room 10 minutes from now.

Presumably that is to make some kind of announcement about what he and Eric Shinseki discussed or decided, and really the only issue at play here is whether the secretary stays or go. And we will bring you word of what that decision is the minute we get it.

Jim, we'll let you work your sources on that as we await for the president in 10 minutes.

Drew, let me go to you. While we await word over whether Secretary Shinseki is staying or leaving, I want to talk about these changes that he proposed for the V.A.

They are not insignificant, major cutbacks and layoffs of people in Phoenix who were responsible for issues at that hospital, no bonuses for any senior-level people in the V.A., in general, in changing the evaluation process inside the V.A..

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, and why -- why, John? It's because many people believe that the root cause of this was that, in trying to reach these ridiculously unrealistic goals of making appointments and seeing every veteran within 14 days, that performance goal became the marker instead of actually attaining that.

What I mean is just on paper they were trying to meet these goals, and the only way they could do that was to literally get rid of some of the data that shows that these veterans have been and continue to wait for care.

So he's taking away that bonus as a measure of the metrics in which these administrators get their bonuses. He's also removing bonuses, altogether, and he is leading to firing of the executive staff in Phoenix. But this scandal is systemic. Are you going to fire every single administrator that has lied to you, Mr. -- General Shinseki? It is very, very big, John, and that's why I think there could be a very, very big change.

BERMAN: Again, I want to bring people breaking news here, a major development at the White House right now. The secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki left the White House moments ago after meeting in the Oval Office with President Obama.

We learned just minutes ago that the president will make a statement in the Briefing Room. You're seeing a live picture of that Briefing Room right now.

At 11:15, the president will step before that microphone, and he will tell the American people what he decided to do with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Will Secretary Shinseki stay on the job or will he go?

Drew griffin, I want to talk about more of the reforms that Secretary Shinseki was discussing. He said, We have done big things here before, so we can do big things going forward.

Based on your reporting, your knowledge of this agency, does he have the faith of the people there anymore?

GRIFFIN: Well, by his own admission, he's been lied to. By his own admission, he's not been getting the full facts on this.

I question why he hasn't himself been able to find out those facts, but let's put it at face value. If he's saying the core team surrounding him has lied to him, and he's saying that we have a systemic scandal at all of the big major hospitals that the V.A. runs throughout the country, then what kind of leadership role is that, where he has no clue what's going on underneath him?

He did go to the Coalition for Homeless Veterans this morning, particularly because that is an issue that is near and dear to his heart, and, John, he's done a great job with homeless veterans.

But it's a bigger job than just taking one part of the V.A. and doing well while the other part wallows in a terrible, terrible scandal.

BERMAN: Eric Shinseki has given decades of service to this country in the military and for the last five years at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Within the next few minutes we'll learn whether he will stay as secretary of this department amid all of the scandals that CNN has been reporting on, and Drew Griffin has been reporting on for months, again, that announcement coming just a few minutes from now.

I want to throw it now to my friend, Wolf Blitzer, who is in Washington to cover this big day at the White House. Wolf?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR, "THE SITUATION ROOM": John, thanks very much.

The president of the United States getting ready to walk into the Briefing Room and make a major statement, this follows his meeting that has just wrapped up with the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, a meeting in which Shinseki presented at least his initial account of what went wrong, and clearly a lot has gone wrong over the last several months, indeed, years, at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

We don't know if the secretary himself will come into this Briefing Room or if it will be the president by himself. I suspect it will be the president by himself. We'll see what he has to say, whether he stands with Shinseki or announces that Shinseki has decided to submit his resignation. The president has accepted that resignation. We'll find out momentarily.

You're looking at live pictures from the Briefing Room. They are setting up for the president. You see there they're working on the flags. They've got the reporters all standing by in the front row there getting ready to discuss. Our own Jim Acosta is there, as well. They're all getting information on what's going on.

Drew Griffin is with us. Drew, you helped break this story, weeks and weeks ago. You told us what was going on, and right now, potentially this could be the fruition, whether or not the secretary of Veterans Affairs goes or stays.

It will be a very difficult decision. It has been a difficult decision for this president, given Shinseki's record not only as a combat veteran during the Vietnam War, a four-star U.S. Army general, someone who has worked since day one in the Obama administration as the secretary of Veterans Affairs.

If he decides that Shinseki will go, it will be largely because he's lost faith that Shinseki can get the job done.

GRIFFIN: And it's a tough decision, Wolf, because the problem exists with or without Shinseki there. There is a major, major problem at the V.A. health system, which needs to be fixed.

So if the president does in fact announce that Mr. Shinseki is gone, there needs to be somebody in place very soon to get on the ground and fix these problems.

So this is just the beginning of the actual solution, but Eric Shinseki staying or going in and of itself is not going to fix the problem.

BLITZER: Gloria Borger is with us. You wrote an excellent piece on CNN.com about this president, the potential of forced resignations if you will.

Look, the president has to make a decision, one way or another, right now, because early next week, he heads to Poland, then he goes to NATO headquarters in Belgium, then he goes to France for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. He needs to move on. He needs get this over with, one way or another. My own suspicion is he's going to announce that Shinseki is gone, but we'll find out momentarily.

But this is a very, very difficult decision for a president who values loyalty, friendship, hard work among his cabinet secretaries.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: And, also, don't forget that Eric Shinseki is a war hero, Wolf, with a long history there. And he's somebody who has done an awful lot of things that the president has wanted him to do, such as taking on the homelessness issue with veterans.

And I think this is difficult for any president. For this particular president, who, as you know, and we have spoken about this in the past, doesn't like to fire people much. I think it's not easy.

But if this White House has given a hint about anything, it's that General Shinseki has been on a very short leash here. They want to hold him accountable. You heard him earlier this morning say that he himself was not aware of the extent of the problem.

Given that he wasn't aware, the president can very easily turn to him and say, That's unacceptable. I have to hold you accountable. You're the man at the top.

And I think that's probably likely what the president has done, Wolf.

BLITZER: I suspect you're right.

Jim Acosta is our White House correspondent. Jim, you're in the Briefing Room, getting ready to hear from the president of the United States. He has wrapped up this meeting with the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki.

I think Shinseki has left the White House, right? He's not going to be walking in to the Briefing Room with the president, is that right?

ACOSTA: We don't expect this to happen, Wolf, and what we can say at this point is that this is obviously a very difficult decision for President Obama as Gloria and the others have been saying in the last several minutes. This is a president who is loathe to fire people. He's very loyal to his cabinet. We've seen that over the years.

But what I have been told by White House officials is that this is a very different situation, Wolf, than what we saw with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. The White House was confident the broken White House could be fixed while she was still atop HHS.

There's real concern inside this White House as to whether or not Eric Shinseki can really get to the root of these deep, deep embedded problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

You heard the Veterans Affairs secretary, earlier this morning, saying that basically he's been lied to by top officials inside that agency, by people at these various hospital facilities around the country, and so this becomes a crisis in confidence. And we heard much of that yesterday.

We heard, earlier this week, that the secretary is on thin ice. We heard the ice starting to break yesterday when White House press secretary Jay Carney, when he was repeatedly asked if the president had confidence in Eric Shinseki, just did not answer that question. And Wolf it would be very difficult to see the president come out say now he has confidence in Eric Shinseki. It's almost a matter of trying to putting the toothpaste back in the tube. I don't think that's going to happen when we see the president come out in a few moments Wolf.

BLITZER: We did hear Shinseki this morning at a breakfast to try and help homeless vets. He says what has occurred in recent weeks, he called it a breach of integrity that is irresponsible, it is indefensible and unacceptable to me. Even he is acknowledging that what has been going on in some of these V.A. facilities, not only in Phoenix, but at more than 40 other V.A. facilities across the United States, unacceptable to me, that is what Shinseki said.

I'm sure if the president does announce that Shinseki has resigned, he has accepted his resignation. He'll go out of his way to praise Eric Shinseki for all the excellent work he has done on a whole host of other issues, going back to his military career. He retired as a four start general. Going back to his combat service during the Vietnam war.

So the president, I'm sure will go out of his way to praise Secretary Shinseki even as he announces, presumably lets see if he does, that he's going to be moving on. If he does announces that Shinseki is leaving as secretary of veterans affairs. The deputy secretary will become the interim secretary.

ACOSTA: Here comes the president, Wolf.

BLITZER: Here comes the president right now.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Good morning, everybody.

A few minutes Secretary Shinseki and Rob Nabors, who I've temporarily assigned to work with the V.A., presented me with the department's initial review of the V.A. facilities nationwide. And what they found is that the misconduct has not been limited to a few V.A. facilities, but many across the country. This is totally unacceptable. All veterans deserve the best. They have earned it.

Last week I said that if we found misconduct, it would be punished, and I meant it.

Secretary Shinseki has now begun the process of firing many of the people responsible, including senior leaders at the Phoenix V.A. He's canceled any possible performance bonuses this year for VHA senior executives. And he has ordered the V.A. to personally contact every veteran in Phoenix waiting for appointments to get them the care that they need and that they deserve. And this morning, I think some of you also heard Ric take a truly remarkable action. In public remarks, he took responsibility for the conduct of those facilities, and apologized to his fellow veterans and to the American people.

And a few minutes ago, Secretary Shinseki offered me his own resignation. And with considerable regret, I accepted.

Ric Shinseki has served his country with honor for nearly 50 years. He did two tours of combat in Vietnam. He's a veteran who left a part of himself on the battlefield. He rose to command the 1st Cavalry Division, served as Army chief of staff, and has never been afraid to speak truth to power.

As secretary of the V.A., he presided over record investments in our veterans, enrolling 2 million new veterans in health care and delivering disability pay to more Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange, making it easier for veterans with post-traumatic stress, mental health issues and traumatic brain injury to get treatment, improving care for our women veterans.

At the same time, he helped reduce veteran homelessness and helped more than 1 million veterans, servicemembers and their families pursue their education under the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill.

So Ric's commitment to our veterans is unquestioned. His service to our country is exemplary. I am grateful for his service, as are many veterans across the country. He has worked hard to investigate and identify the problems with access to care. But as he told me this morning, the V.A. needs new leadership to address them. He does not want to be a distraction because his priority is to fix the problem and make sure our vets are getting the care that they need. That was Ric's judgment on behalf of his fellow veterans.

And I agree. We don't have time for distractions. We need to fix the problem.

For now, the leader that will help move us forward is Sloan Gibson, who will take on the reins as acting secretary.

Sloan became deputy secretary at the V.A. just three months ago, but he, too, has devoted his life to serving our country and our veterans. His grandfather fought on the front lines of World War I. His father was a tailgunner in World War II.

Sloan graduated from West Point. Earned his airborne and ranger qualifications and served in the infantry. And, most recently, he was president and CEO of the USO, which does a remarkable job supporting our men and women at war, their families, our wounded warriors, and families of the fallen.

So, all told, Sloan has 20 years of private sector and non-profit experience that he brings to bear on our ongoing work to build a 21st century V.A. And I'm grateful that he is willing to take on this task.

I met with Sloan after I met with Ric this morning, and made it clear that reforms should not wait. They need to proceed immediately. I've also asked Rob Nabors to stay at the V.A. temporarily to help Sloan and the department through this transition and to complete his own review of the VHA.

In the meantime, we're going to look diligently for a new permanent V.A. secretary, and we hope to confirm that successor and fill that post as soon as possible.

And we're going to do right by our veterans across the board, as long as it takes. We're not going to stop working to make sure that they get the care, the benefit and the opportunities that they've earned and they deserve.

I said we wouldn't tolerate misconduct, and we will not. I said that we have to do better, and we will. There are too many veterans receiving care right now who deserve all of our best efforts, and an honest assessment if something is not working.

And this week, I visited some of our men and women in uniform at different stages of their service. Our newest Army officers who graduated from West Point. Our troops currently serving in Afghanistan. Our veterans and our military families at Arlington. And what I saw is what I've seen in every single servicemember, veteran and military spouse that I have had the privilege to meet: a selfless, clear-eyed commitment to serving their country the best way that they know how. They're the best that our country has to offer. They do their duty. They expect us to do ours.

So today, I want every man and woman who served under our flag to know whether your tour has been over for decades or is just about to end, we will never stop working to do right by you and your families.

Let me take a couple questions.

Leo Shane from the Military Times.

QUESTION: Mr. President, what -- what changed in your opinion on Secretary Shinseki in the last few days?

You had said you had confidence in him, even in (ph) coming in today and saying it was time for him to resign.

What -- what -- what made the difference in your -- in your mind?

OBAMA: Rich judgment.

I think his belief that he would be a distraction from the task at hand, which is to make sure that what's broken gets fixed so that his fellow veterans are getting the services that they need.

I want to reiterate, he is a very good man. I don't just mean he's an accomplished man. I don't just mean that he's been an outstanding soldier. He's a good person who's done exemplary work on our behalf. And under his leadership, we have seen more progress on more fronts at the V.A. and a bigger investment in the V.A. than just about any other V.A. secretary.

He cut veterans' homelessness by 24 percent, brought in folks who had been exposed to Agent Orange who had been waiting for decades to get the services and benefits that they had earned, making sure that post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury was dealt with in a serious way, making sure we had facilities for our women vets, who, all too often, weren't receiving the kind of specialized services that they needed.

So he's been a champion of our veterans. And where there's problems, he has been ready and willing to get in there and fix them.

So with the disability backlog that had shot up as a consequence of the admission of the Agent Orange veterans as well as making it easier to apply for post-traumatic stress disorder disability claims, when it spiked, he went at it in a systematic way, and we've now cut it by 50 percent over the course of the last year or so.

He's not adverse to admitting where there's a problem and going after it. But when we occupy a -- not just an environment that calls for management fixes, we've also got to deal with Congress and you guys and I think in Ric's judgment that he could not carry out the next stages of reform without being a distraction himself.

And so, my assessment was, unfortunately, that he was right. I regret that he has to resign under these circumstances, but I also have confidence in Sloan and I share Ric Shinseki's assessment that the number one priority is making sure that problems get fixed so that if there's a veteran out there who needs help, that they're getting a schedule and they're able to come in and see a doctor, and that if there are facilities that don't have enough doctors or do not have enough nurses or do not have enough space, that that information immediately gets in the hands of decision-makers, all the way up to me and all the way to Congress so that we can get more resources in there to help folks.

And that seems to be the biggest problem. I think that's the thing that offended Secretary Shinseki the most during the course of this process. You know, he described to me the fact that when he was in-theater, he might have to order an attack just based on a phone call from some 20-something-year-old corporal, and he's got to trust that he's getting good information and it's life or death.

And I think he's deeply disappointed in the fact that bad news did not get to him. And that the structures weren't in place for him to identify this problem quickly and fix it. His priority now is to make sure that happens and he felt like new leadership would be -- would serve our veterans best, and I agree with him.

Phil Maglin (ph)?

QUESTION: Mr. President, based on the audit -- at least the early-stage audit the secretary presented to you, is there a sense that there was criminal wrongdoing? And I guess more broadly, how much responsibility do you personally bear as this being an issue you campaigned on and cared about deeply -- you said you cared about deeply during your administration, now that we're at this point?

OBAMA: Well, I will leave it up to the Justice Department to make determinations in terms of whether there's been criminal wrongdoing. In terms of responsibility, as I've said before, this is my administration. I always take responsibility for whatever happens, and this is an area that I have a particular concern with.

This predates my presidency. When I was in the Senate, I was on the Veterans Affairs Committee. I heard first-hand veterans who were not getting the kinds of services and benefits that they had earned. And I pledged that if I had the privilege of serving as commander in chief and president, that we would fix it.

And the V.A. is a big organization, that has had problems for a very long time. In some cases, management problems. In some cases, funding problems.

And so, what we tried to do is to systematically go after the problems that we were aware of and fix them. And where we had seen our veterans not being properly served, whether it was too many homeless veterans or a disability claims process that was taking too long, we would go at it and chip away at it, and fix it.

When it came to funding, we've increased funding for V.A. services in an unprecedented fashion, because we understood that it's not enough just to give lip service to our veterans, when not being willing to put our money where our mouth is.

And so, what I can say confidently is that this has been a priority. It's been a priority reflected in my budget. And that in terms of managing the V.A., where we had seen a problem, where we had been aware of a problem, we have gone after it and fixed it, and have been able to make significant progress.

But, what is absolutely clear is this one, this issue of scheduling, is one that the reporting systems inside of the VHA did not surface to the level where Ric was aware of it, or we were able to see it. This was not something that we were hearing when I was traveling around the country, the particular issue of scheduling. And what we're gonna have to do as part of the review is gonna have to be -- see how do we make sure that we get information about systems that aren't working.

Or, I just was talking to Rob Nabors, and he described to me, for example, just in -- in very specific detail, how, in some of these facilities, you've got computer systems for scheduling that date back to the '90s.