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Why the White House is pretending a fired cabinet secretary 'resigned'

Donald Trump last week fired his VA secretary, David Shulkin. The White House nevertheless finds it necessary to pretend Shulkin quit.

Donald Trump last week fired his VA secretary, David Shulkin, in the latest major shake-up of the administration's team. According to the ousted cabinet secretary, the move was part of a push within the administration to privatize veterans' care.

According to the White House, however, Shulkin wasn't fired at all -- because he "resigned."

On NBC's "Meet the Press" yesterday, Chuck Todd asked if the former secretary if he submitted a letter of resignation. "No, I did not," the former VA chief replied. Was he asked to resign? "No, I was not," Shulkin said.

"I came to fight for our veterans and I had no intention of giving up," Shulkin explained. "There would be no reason for me to resign. I made a commitment, I took an oath, and I was here to fight for our veterans."

Even for Team Trump this is an odd thing to lie about. Indeed, it's an entirely knowable thing: either Shulkin was fired or he wasn't. Why make up a story that's so easily discredited? Why pretend a cabinet secretary resigned when he clearly did not?

As it happens, we know the answer. Politico  reported over the weekend that the fired-vs-resigned distinction "could have far-reaching implications that could throw the Department of Veterans Affairs, the second-largest federal agency, into further disarray."

In announcing the removal of Shulkin as VA secretary, Trump tapped Defense Department official Robert Wilkie as the acting leader of the department, bypassing Shulkin's deputy, who was next in line to succeed him. That decision has reignited a debate among legal experts about the president's ability to hand-pick replacements for ousted Cabinet secretaries.The debate centers on vague language in the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998, which gives the president broad authority to temporarily fill a vacancy at a federal agency with an acting official if the current office holder "dies, resigns, or is otherwise unable to perform the functions and duties of the office."

In other words, if Shulkin didn't resign, the president's personnel authority is far more limited. What's more, if Shulkin was fired -- and literally every piece of evidence makes clear that he was -- then he should be replaced by Deputy Secretary Thomas Bowman until the Senate confirms a permanent successor.

But the White House doesn't like Bowman, an opponent of the far-right privatization push.

And so we're left with an administration that feels it has no choice but to play make-believe, while Shulkin tries to explain reality.