Jake Tapper Explodes at WH Chief of Staff: 'How Many Dead Veterans Do You Need?'

Today White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough kept defending the record of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinkseki over his handling of the Veterans Administration hospitals scandal on CNN's The Lead. Finally an increasingly agitated Jake Tapper grew frustrated with the excuses until he exploded in anger: "How Many Dead Veterans Do You Need?"

It was an all too familiar administration two-step but the normally mild-mannered Tapper wasn't going to have any of it. In the dramatic video below the jump, you can see a clearly  upset Tapper finally lash out at McDonough.

Here is a transcript of the interview which followed the CNN report on the VA Hospital scandal:

JAKE TAPPER: White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough joins me now exclusively for reaction to all this. Denis, thanks for being here. Obviously, General Shinseki served his country honorably. We all appreciate his service, but how on earth can the president have full confidence in him? People died.

DENIS MCDONOUGH, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Ric -- the fact of these deaths is an outrage to the president. He's made that clear. And you heard what General Shinseki had to say today. He's mad as hell about this. Nobody is more mad than the present. And I have the scars to show it, given his reaction to it as he and I have talked about it. But Ric Shinseki has dedicated his life to the armed forces of the United States, to the defense of this country. And he has shown over the course of nearly six years now his commitment to our veterans. We have seen a dramatic expansion of 16 percent more vets into the health care system, 14 percent additional -- 14 percent increase in spending in the health care system. We have had a dramatic expansion of education benefits through the G.I. Bill, $40 billion for our vets, who have given us so much to make sure that they have the opportunity they deserve. And so Ric is going to get to the bottom of this. The president is demanding that, and that's exactly what we will do.

TAPPER: But this is what happened. There was a new order put out by Shinseki saying that any new applicants to the VA for primary care need to be seen within 14 days. And a lot of critics wondered at the time if the VA was capable of that. And what all of these VA hospitals, one we know of others that we suspect, is they cooked the books. That was under Shinseki. I'm not saying he didn't do other good things. But that was under him. People didn't tell him the truth, didn't tell his underlings the truth. Why is he not held accountable for it?

MCDONOUGH: He holds himself to account. And you saw him go before Congress to ask a very -- a series of very difficult questions. But you also see him travel the country every day to talk to vets and their families. He holds himself accountable to his men and women with whom he served, whom he led for decades.


TAPPER: ... stay in the job?

MCDONOUGH: Well, let me tell you a little bit else about what he's done.


MCDONOUGH: Take this question about the backlog on claims. We have seen a dramatic expansion in the number of people seeking claims because of decisions, brave decisions that Ric Shinseki made. If you have PTS, then you don't need to have -- you will have a presumption of making your claim whole.If you had Gulf War illness, if you had exposure to Agent Orange, that leads to a dramatic increases in the number of veterans who are trying to get compensated for the disaster that they have lived through.

TAPPER: Right.

MCDONOUGH: Ric Shinseki is the first secretary of the Veterans Administration who said, you know what? I am going to put a clock on myself. Not only am I going to make these tough decisions. I'm going to put up a scoreboard and hold myself to account. So, he's put the backlog on himself and said, I'm going to finish this before the end of 2015. And you know what he's doing? He's dramatically reducing that. It's 50 percent less than it was. And it's because he cares deeply about these vets, as does the president. And that's exactly what we're going to do. We're not going to get involved in any political games. We're just going to get the job done.

TAPPER: But, Denis, senators say there's ample evidence that federal crimes may have been committed. Senator Blumenthal said we need to bring in the FBI to make sure that no evidence is destroyed. Why is the Justice Department sitting on the sidelines on this?

MCDONOUGH: What I would say is, I would just refer you to the Veterans Administration I.G. on this. They are investigating this, digging into it, taking a hard look at it. That's right where it should be.

Ah, yes. An internal investigation. And how many times have we heard that line before? Fortunately Tapper kept pressing McDonough on the scandal on which he continued to be chock full of excuses.

TAPPER: Lives are on the line. And this is not new. Anyone who reads the papers know, in 2011, there was an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in the VA in Pittsburgh. And what happened there? The individual running the hospital, even though I think five or six veterans died as a result of that outbreak, there was no accountability. The person that ran the hospital got a perfect review, with no mention of Legionnaires' disease. And the person that was the regional director got a bonus. What can be done to stop this culture of no accountability in the VA system?

Just the VA system, Jake? The culture of no accountability is also prevalent at the BATF, IRS, and the State Department.

MCDONOUGH: You heard what Ric said to the Senate committee today, that, in this instance, there's been more than 250 cases of people who have been held accountable for their actions. He can explain that in great detail. The president, as soon as he heard about this latest outrage in Phoenix, called Ric and said, you know what, Ric? I need to know exactly what happened. I need to know exactly the accountability measures that you have and that you can institute, and if it's not enough, then let's change it and make sure that we hold people to account.

TAPPER: But I'm telling you right now that happened in 2011 under Secretary Shinseki, and that person was not held accountable. The person got a perfect performance review and got a bonus. There are lots of examples like this.

Correct Jake. Such as Lois Lerner at the IRS as well as various Fast and Furious supervisors (but not whistleblowers).

MCDONOUGH: And I'm telling you, in that same health care system, Jake, we have dramatically expanded access, because that's exactly what our vets have earned and that's what deserve, and that's what we will continue to do.

TAPPER: This letter from the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee from one year ago warns of dramatic problems at the VA, "a perfect illustration of the management failures, deception, lack of accountability permeating VA's health care system, an alarming pattern of serious and significant patient care issues."

This was sent to President Obama in May 2013, according to Congressman Miller. His office got no response from the president. It was referred to General Shinseki, who, according to them, sent back boilerplate. This is a year ago he was warning about this.

MCDONOUGH: Every day a year -- whether it's a year ago, whether it's yesterday, whether it's tomorrow, the president is dedicated to making sure that our vets get the care that they have earned.


MCDONOUGH: And we work with Chairman Miller, we work with Chairman Sanders, we work with all of the members of the House and Senate to make sure that they have it.

That's why the president has seen dramatically expanded investments in Veterans Administration operations over the course of these last five years, year on year, historic increases in that budget, at a time, by the way, Jake, when we have seen budgets under intense pressure. We will continue to make those investments.

Finally Tapper could take no more of the excuses:

TAPPER: How many stories like this, how many letters like this, how many dead veterans do you need before somebody asks the question within the White House, maybe this guy isn't the best steward of these veterans?

MCDONOUGH: The question, Jake, is, are we doing everything we can every day to get the veterans the care and the opportunities that they deserve?

TAPPER: But you are not. This letter was sent a year ago. And you guys ignored it.

MCDONOUGH: And we have been working aggressively to ensure that not only is health care expanded, opportunities made more ready to our vets, but that people are held to account, as Ric is doing in this case. We will continue to do that.

TAPPER: Last question, sir. And that is, I appreciate your being here and I appreciate your coming and facing these questions live on television.

Drew Griffin has been trying to get an interview with General Shinseki for months, literally. He is the one that broke the story. He's the reason there was a hearing today. Why has Shinseki avoided reporters like Drew Griffin? Why does the VA cordon itself off from accountability, not only from lawmakers and the public, but the press? Doesn't there need to be a bigger cultural change there?

MCDONOUGH: I think what you just saw today is Ric sit down for a three-hour hearing, stay in the hearing to sit to hear the veterans service organizations testify.

After Ric was done, he could have very easily just gotten up and left. Then he came out and he sat down with the press again. Ric is not only going to held himself to account to the press, to Drew, your colleague, or to anybody else, but what he's doing day in and day out is sitting down with veterans and their families and making sure that they get what they need. That's what we owe them. That's what they will get.

TAPPER: It is what we will owe them. And I hope it's what they will get.


Health Care The Lead Veterans Affairs Jake Tapper Denis McDonough