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VA Secretary Robert Wilkie won't "get into" Trump's feud with McCain

VA secretary on veterans' suicide prevention

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie says he's not interested in getting into a "back and forth" between President Trump and "anyone else." And that includes the late Sen. John McCain, a frequent recipient of Mr. Trump's barbs.

"Things at the presidential level, I don't get into," Wilkie told CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent Major Garrett on this week's episode of "The Takeout."

McCain died last August after a battle with brain cancer. But in March, the president reignited their long-running feud, repeatedly criticizing the Vietnam veteran and 2008 GOP presidential candidate. At a rally in Lima, Ohio, in March, Mr. Trump said that McCain "didn't get the job done for our vets and the VA and they knew it."

Wilkie, who was confirmed as VA secretary last year, said that both Mr. Trump and McCain had "been incredibly kind to me. [McCain] was always very supportive of my career."

In 2014, McCain championed the creation of the Veterans Choice program, which increased access to private care, after a series of high profile VA scandals. But Wilkie argued that Mr. Trump has looked out for veterans, saying that his department now has its largest budget ever.

"We are in line with legislation that was signed by the president last year, putting veterans at the center of their healthcare," he said.

That legislation -- the VA Mission Act of 2018 – promises to expand veterans' access to private health care. It also allocates billions of dollars for mental health care for veterans, nearly two billion for programs to help homeless veterans, and $400 million to the VA's Opioid Safety Initiative.

"We confront three very serious issues: homelessness, opioid addition and suicide," Wilkie said.

Wilkie also oversees on a national task force on suicide prevention, and says the "VA alone cannot answer mental health issues." To that end, Wilkie says he relies on the help of the Department of Defense, the National Institute of Health and the Department of Housing and Urban Development in order to combat the top issues facing veterans. 

"My view is at the end, when it comes to the new approach we will send resources to the states and localities, to non-governmental organizations," said Wilkie. "We're not divorced at VA from the problems that impact Americas health system."

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