WASHINGTON - Ahead of Robert Wilkie's likely confirmation to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, Trump loyalists at the agency are taking aggressive steps to purge or reassign staff perceived to be disloyal to President Donald Trump and his agenda for veterans, according to multiple people familiar with the moves.

The transfers include more than a dozen career civil servants who have been moved from the leadership suite at VA headquarters and reassigned to lower-visibility roles. The employees served agency leaders, some dating back more than two decades, in crucial support roles that help a new secretary.

None say they were given reasons for their reassignments.

The moves are being carried out by a small cadre of political appointees led by Acting Secretary Peter O'Rourke who have consolidated power in the four months since they helped oust former Secretary David Shulkin.

The reshuffling marks a new stage in a long estrangement between civil servants and Trump loyalists at VA, where staff upheaval and sinking morale threatens to derail service to one of the president's key constituencies, according to current and former employees.

Among those reassigned is an experienced scheduler who Wilkie told colleagues he wanted to work for him once he is confirmed by the Senate, according to former and current employees.

Other career senior executives with institutional knowledge of VA's troubled benefits operation also have been sidelined, some to other cities, according to multiple people who asked not to be identified because of the issue's sensitivity. A high-ranking executive appointed during the Obama administration to a six-year term quit last week after clashing with Trump aides. Even some Trump appointees have been pushed out for challenging the leadership group.

Current and former employees - and now alarmed members of Congress - call the reshuffling a loyalty purge that is targeting the alleged political sympathies of many career civil servants whose jobs are, by definition, nonpartisan.

"These are people who served multiple administrations," said one employee who was moved, "but they only want them to serve the Trump administration. You can't run a department like that."

At a House hearing on Tuesday, a visibly irritated Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., pressed O'Rourke to explain why he has "removed, demoted or reassigned" a "significant number of career employees."

O'Rourke called his actions "well-planned and designed moves" to improve "efficiency and effectiveness." He acknowledged changes were not based on poor performance.

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