Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie in a 1995 speech lauded Confederate States President Jefferson Davis as a “martyr to ‘The Lost Cause’” and an “exceptional man in an exceptional age,” according to a CNN report.
“Today marks the 187th anniversary of the birth of Jefferson Davis; planter, soldier, statesman, President of the Confederate States of America, martyr to ‘The Lost Cause,’ and finally the gray-clad phoenix ―― an exceptional man in an exceptional age,” Wilkie said in the speech, according to a transcript.
Wilkie was working at the time as a staffer for then-Rep. David Funderburk (R-N.C.) and delivered the speech at an event sponsored by the United Daughters of Confederacy.
Wilkie’s name came up during a CNN KFile investigation into the neo-Confederate movement, which seeks to reframe the Civil War around a more sympathetic view of the Confederacy. CNN found that Wilkie also delivered a speech on Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at a 2009 event hosted by the Maryland division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
In a statement to HuffPost, VA press secretary Curt Cashour noted that numerous presidents have “participated in events recognizing Civil War Veterans years ago.”
Cashour said the events Wilkie attended “were strictly historical in nature, and as Secretary Wilkie said at his confirmation hearing in June, he stopped participating in them once the issue became divisive.”
He also said the issue came up during Wilkie’s Senate confirmation hearings for his positions with the Department of Defense and the VA in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Cashour did not address a question from HuffPost on whether Wilkie sympathizes with the neo-Confederate movement.
CNN’s report comes just a day after The Washington Post reported that a top official at Wilkie’s department denied a request from the agency’s chief diversity and inclusion officer to roundly condemn white supremacy following the deadly Charlottesville riot in August 2017.
President Donald Trump nominated Wilkie as VA secretary in May, two months after firing David Shulkin from the post. Wilkie had been serving as the acting secretary in the interim but had previously worked as undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. In his tenure at the Pentagon, Wilkie played a key role in the administration’s ban on transgender service members.