President Donald Trump shakes hands with acting Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie after announcing he will nominate him to lead the department during an event at the White House May 18, 2018.
Evan Vucci, AP

WASHINGTON — President Trump announced Friday that he will name Robert Wilkie, the acting head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, to fill the post full time.

Wilkie, who has led the VA since Trump fired David Shulkin by tweet in March, comes from the Pentagon, where he is undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. He previously served as assistant secretary of Defense during the George W. Bush administration.

“He doesn’t know this yet," Trump said during a White House event. "I’m sorry that I ruined the surprise.”

The president said Wilkie "has done an incredible job at the VA." 

When he became acting secretary, the VA put out a statement hailing his leadership in uniting everyone at the agency around shared goals after a tumultuous few months, when Shulkin had been feuding with a group of top political appointees.

"Under Acting Secretary Wilkie’s leadership, senior VA officials are now on the same page, speaking with one voice to Veterans, employees and outside stakeholders, such as Congress and veterans service organizations, and are focused on a number of key priorities in the short term," VA press secretary Curt Cashour said. 

Trump's announcement comes at a critical time for the agency. The VA struck a multi-billion dollar deal this week for a new electronic medical record system, and legislation to pave the way for a major overhaul of VA health care is set to pass the Senate next week. Trump is expected to sign the bill into law before Memorial Day.

The details of the overhaul — how it is implemented and rules governing when veterans can get VA-funded care in the private sector — will be up to Wilkie, if he is confirmed as the next secretary. 

During an appearance in the White House briefing room on Thursday, Wilkie said the bill will make it "much easier for our veterans to obtain care that they need at the moment that they need it, in homes and in facilities closest to where they live."

He also thanked the president "for providing me the opportunity to serve America's veterans."  

Trump's last nominee to take the post, White House doctor Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, withdrew after a Senate probe uncovered numerous allegations of misconduct. 

Wilkie has already been confirmed to his current Pentagon post by the Senate so going through vetting to take over the VA could be smoother. 

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate VA committee, said Friday that he has enjoyed getting to know Wilkie during his time as acting secretary and working with him on the overhaul legislation, known as the VA MISSION Act.

“I congratulate Undersecretary Wilkie on his nomination and look forward to learning more about his long-term views for the VA, including how he plans to implement the VA MISSION Act when it becomes law, as we work through the confirmation process," he said.

Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the highest ranking Democrat on the committee and the leader of the probe that derailed Jackson's nomination, said he has a "good working relationship" with Wilkie.

“I look forward to sitting down with him again to have an in-depth conversation about his vision and plan for the VA,” he said.

Veterans' groups, whose support can be crucial to confirmation, also issued generally positive reviews of the Wilkie pick.

The American Legion said it welcomed the decision after 51 days without a confirmed VA secretary. Disabled American Veterans said it was "pleased" and noted Wilkie has "considerable experience navigating federal government policies."

“Robert Wilkie has clearly been working hard to learn the many extremely complicated and most pressing issues facing veterans right now,” AMVETS Executive Director Joe Chenelly said. “His early work has earned him the confidence of AMVETS, and we’re looking forward to a thorough but hopefully speedy confirmation process.”

More: 6 big things the new Veterans Affairs chief will have to address

Acting Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie delivers a brief statement during the daily news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House May 17, 2018.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images