Political News

Trump Hints That Jackson Might Withdraw VA Nomination Amid Criticism

Posted April 24, 2018 6:04 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump acknowledged Tuesday that Dr. Ronny L. Jackson, his nominee to lead the Veterans Affairs Department, is in serious trouble amid allegations that he oversaw a hostile work environment as the White House doctor, allowed the overprescribing of drugs and possibly drank on the job.

Speaking at a news conference with the president of France, Trump strongly defended Jackson, the current White House physician, as “one of the finest people that I have met,” but he hinted that Jackson might soon withdraw from consideration, blaming Democrats for mounting an unfair attack on his nominee’s record.

“I don’t want to put a man through a process like this,” Trump said, calling the allegations about Jackson “ugly.” The president said, “The fact is, I wouldn’t do it. What does he need it for? To be abused by a number of politicians?”

“It’s totally his decision,” Trump added, saying that he had talked with Jackson earlier in the day.

The concern over Jackson’s nomination is bipartisan. The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee launched an investigation into Jackson’s White House work record last week, and the committee’s Republican and Democratic leaders jointly announced Tuesday that Jackson’s confirmation hearing, planned for this Wednesday, would be postponed indefinitely “in light of new information presented to the committee.”

“We take very seriously our constitutional duty to thoroughly and carefully vet each nominee sent to the Senate for confirmation,” said Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the committee chairman, and Jon Tester of Montana, its top Democrat, in a joint statement. “We will continue looking into these serious allegations.”

In a letter to the president, both senators requested “any and all communication” between the Defense Department, the White House Military Office and the White House medical unit “regarding allegations or incidents” involving Jackson back to 2006.

“I have very serious questions that need to be addressed, and they should be addressed right now, like today,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the committee.

Officials familiar with the allegations against Jackson declined to offer precise details but said that they suggest a pattern of behavior, not just one or two isolated incidents. The officials declined to elaborate on the allegation that Jackson overprescribed drugs.

But White House physicians, including Jackson’s predecessors, have for years distributed small amounts of Ambien, a prescription sleep aid, to White House staff and members of the press flying on long overseas trips. And several former officials said the doctors also distributed Provigil, a prescription drug for promoting wakefulness, to staff members upon landing.

On trips to Africa and other countries where malaria is rampant, White House doctors would also distribute Malarone, a prescription medicine that prevents the disease.

Members of both parties pushed back on the alcohol allegation. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said that Jackson told him during a one-on-one meeting on Tuesday that “he has never had a drink while on duty.” Moran said Jackson did not specifically address other allegations against him, but indicated that he intended to move ahead as the nominee.

Brian McKeon, who served as chief of staff for the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, said he does not recall Jackson ever drinking to excess or being under the influence, even on long trips abroad. “I am not even sure that I ever saw him in a hotel bar,” McKeon wrote in an email Tuesday.

Still, Republicans said the charges are serious. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., a member of the committee, said “If the allegations were based in fact, it would be concerning.”

Jackson, a rear admiral in the Navy, was already expected to face difficult questioning during his testimony before the committee. Last month, Trump fired his first Veterans Affairs secretary, David J. Shulkin, an experienced hospital administrator and veteran of the VA medical system, and then chose Jackson largely out of personal affinity.

As White House physician, Jackson had undergone intense vetting for a position that gives him unusually close access to the president. But Trump’s abrupt nomination of his personal doctor to lead the VA pre-empted any review of Jackson’s qualifications to manage a large bureaucracy. Officials said there was virtually no examination of Jackson’s policy views before the announcement.

Before serving as a White House physician, Jackson had deployed as an emergency medicine physician to Taqaddum, Iraq, during the Iraq War.

The nominee, speaking with reporters on Capitol Hill before meeting with a Republican senator Tuesday afternoon, gave no indication that he would withdraw. He did not deny or answer questions about the charges.

But he added, “I’m looking forward to getting it rescheduled and answering everybody’s questions.”

White House officials said they do not know how Jackson would ultimately respond to Trump’s suggestion that he consider pulling out of consideration. Some inside the West Wing were hoping that Jackson continues to fight for the position, at least to defend himself.

More than a half-dozen former White House officials who served with Jackson in Obama’s administration also expressed support for him. None said they recalled him ever being drunk or loosely dispensing medications.

“He always seemed to be alert, responsive, responsible,” said David Axelrod, who served as Obama’s senior adviser. “My impressions were positive. My interactions were positive. I never heard any complaints.”

The turmoil around his nomination all but ensures that the department, the federal government’s second largest, will remain without a permanent leader for at least several weeks at a moment when it was supposed to be adopting systematic changes to its electronic health records system and programs that allow veterans to seek care from private doctors at government expense. The Senate received paperwork from the Trump administration formalizing Jackson’s nomination only last week.

“It has been really careless, maybe even negligent about the vetting in a number of these nominations,” Blumenthal said.

Senators were keeping the details of their investigation under wraps but let it be known that the allegations are serious.

Asked if he still supported the nominee, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, offered only, “We’re going to wait and see what Sen. Isakson and the administration recommend.”

The White House defended Jackson’s record in a statement, but did not address the nature of the claims against him.

“Adm. Jackson has been on the front lines of deadly combat and saved the lives of many others in service to this country. He’s served as the physician to three presidents — Republican and Democrat — and been praised by them all,” said Hogan Gidley, a deputy White House press secretary. “Adm. Jackson’s record of strong, decisive leadership is exactly what’s needed at the VA to ensure our veterans receive the benefits they deserve.”

Lawmakers were already preparing to press Jackson on his views on the role of private medical care for veterans, instead of the department’s government-run health care system. Senators planned to challenge his lack of management experience running a large organization. The department employs more than 370,000 people and operates sprawling health and veterans benefits systems.

Before his nomination, Jackson had garnered little public attention and his policy views were unknown. He took a rare turn in the spotlight in January, when he appeared on national television to announce the results of Trump’s first physical while in office. At the time, there was speculation over the president’s physical and mental health, and Jackson offered effusive compliments on both. Trump was pleased with the performance.

At one point, Jackson even quipped that given Trump’s genetics, he might live to 200 years old if he had a healthier diet.

Trump fired his first Veterans Affairs secretary amid deep ideological disagreements over privatization of care at the department and extended fallout from a scathing report by its inspector general about a trip that Shulkin had taken last year to Britain and Denmark. Shulkin, a politically moderate physician and former hospital executive, remained well liked on Capitol Hill and among veterans groups, who felt he was a pragmatic leader who understood the department intimately.