President Obama sought to stem a growing political furor Friday by accepting the resignation of Eric K. Shinseki, the beleaguered secretary of Veterans Affairs, the second Cabinet-level official to resign under fire this year.
Two hours later, Obama abruptly returned to the White House briefing room's podium to announce the departure of what he called "one of my closest friends," Jay Carney, the White House press secretary.
Although the resignations were unrelated, the sudden high-level reshuffle fueled a sense of unease in the West Wing. The administration plans to unveil new rules Monday to curtail power plant emissions, a move sure to spark opposition in coal-dependent states, and the president then is to leave for Europe to reassure allies nervous about Russia's aggression in Ukraine.
The chief focus Friday was the upheaval in the Department of Veterans Affairs, where a growing scandal has focused on allegations that staffers in numerous VA facilities falsified records to conceal how long veterans had to wait for medical appointments.
Obama did not name a replacement for Shinseki, a retired four-star Army general who had been under intense pressure to step down.
The next VA secretary will face enormous challenges to repair a system that has been plagued with service delays since at least 2005 and that now is struggling with a flood of claims from veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A White House official acknowledged Friday that the staff was in scramble mode to get to the "ground truth" of what happened at the VA and to develop a fix-it plan.
The president accepted Shinseki's resignation hours after the 38-year military veteran had publicly apologized and accepted responsibility for the scandal. Shinseki's deputy, Sloan Gibson, 61, a West Point graduate and former banker, will take over as acting secretary.
Obama praised Shinseki repeatedly, asserting over and over that he was persuaded by Shinseki's own analysis that the VA chief was too much of a distraction to remain in the job.
"We don't have time for distractions," Obama said. "We need to fix the problem.
"What I want is somebody at the VA who is not spending time outside of solving problems for veterans," he added. "That's what I want somebody at the VA focused on. Not how they are getting second-guessed, and speculation about their futures."
Shinseki's departure is unlikely to end the political uproar over mismanagement of one of the federal government's largest departments. The VA operates 1,700 hospitals and clinics handled 85 million outpatient visits last year.
Unlike most issues on Capitol Hill, the VA scandal has sparked bipartisan outrage, with both Democrats and Republicans viewing veterans as a core responsibility and a crucial constituency.
Congress plans to hold more oversight hearings into the still-unfolding scandal. Battles are shaping up in Congress over the VA budget and a spate of reform legislation.
Richard J. Griffin, the acting VA inspector general who issued a scathing report Wednesday, is continuing his investigation at 42 medical facilities. His full report is due in August.
On Friday, the VA released an audit saying 13% of the scheduling staffers interviewed indicated they had gotten instructions to change appointment dates.
In some cases, "pressures were placed on schedulers to utilize inappropriate practices in order to make waiting times appear more favorable," the audit said.
Carney, a familiar face on TV from countless White House briefings, said he would leave this summer after three years in the job, longer than most White House press secretaries last. He will be replaced by his deputy, Josh Earnest.
Carney gave no reason for leaving other than to say he told the president last month that he was ready to move on. The West Wing wanted to make the news public before Obama leaves Monday for Poland, Belgium and France, and Earnest takes Carney's place on the president's plane.
Obama praised Earnest, calling him a man whose "name describes his demeanor." The Kansas City, Mo., native worked on Capitol Hill before joining Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.