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President's doctor pulls out as Veterans Affairs nominee amid misconduct allegations

President's doctor pulls out as Veterans Affairs nominee amid misconduct allegations
Dr. Ronny Jackson at the White House. (Olivier Douliery / Tribune News Service)

President Trump's White House physician, Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, withdrew his nomination to serve as secretary of Veterans Affairs on Thursday, citing the "distraction" from a string of what he termed "completely false and fabricated" allegations.

"While I will forever be grateful for the trust and confidence President Trump has placed in me by giving me this opportunity, I am regretfully withdrawing my nomination to be secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs," Jackson wrote in a statement released by the White House.

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The White House said he would remain in his current job, at least for now.

"Adm. Jackson is a doctor in the United States Navy assigned to the White House and is here at work today," White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

Nonetheless, the public airing of charges against Jackson could jeopardize his current position.

His case provides another high-profile example of reputation damage done to someone in Trump's orbit. Other examples include Trump's former press secretary, Sean Spicer, who became the butt of jokes, and Michael Flynn, the former national security advisor, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.

Jackson served three presidents as a White House doctor and drew high praise from both Trump and former President Obama. But he was an unorthodox pick for the VA job, which requires managing a federal bureaucracy of more than 300,000 employees. He had no previous experience in managing a large staff and had no known positions on the policy issues facing the VA.

That lack of management expertise had led senators in both parties to question the nomination even before a rash of allegations of misconduct became public this week.

Trump, speaking on "Fox and Friends," blamed Jackson's withdrawal on "obstructionist" Democrats angry that his pick for secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was headed for confirmation.

"He's an admiral, highly respected and a real leader," Trump said of Jackson. "He would have done a great job.

"These are all false accusations. These are false, and they're trying to destroy a man. By the way, I did say 'Welcome to Washington. Welcome to the swamp.' "

Senators in both parties, however, had decided earlier this week to indefinitely postpone a confirmation hearing for Jackson after a series of witnesses, mostly current and former military personnel, contacted congressional staff members with troubling accounts of Jackson's behavior.

On both sides of the political aisle, senators also had expressed concern about a lack of proper vetting of the nomination by the White House.

Trump picked Jackson in late March after minimal consultation with his staff, and as former colleagues began to come forward in recent days with their accusations, White House officials seemed caught unawares.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), the senior Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said this week that 23 individuals had contacted the committee with allegations against Jackson that included drunkenness on the job, poor management and over-prescribing of drugs. Most of those leveling the charges were current or former military personnel, Senate aides said.

Tester's staff released a summary of the allegations earlier this week, including accusations that Jackson had dispensed Percocet, a narcotic, inappropriately and that he had gotten drunk and "wrecked a government vehicle" at a goodbye party for a Secret Service member.

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Jackson has denied some of the accusations, including the one about wrecking a car. On Thursday, he issued a blanket criticism of his accusers but did not respond to the specifics.

"Going into this process, I expected tough questions about how to best care for our veterans, but I did not expect to have to dignify baseless and anonymous attacks on my character and integrity," he said.

"The allegations against me are completely false and fabricated," he added. "If they had any merit, I would not have been selected, promoted and entrusted to serve in such a sensitive and important role as physician to three presidents over the past 12 years."

Trump made a similar blanket denial in his "Fox & Friends" comments.

"There's no proof of this, and he has a perfect record. He's got this beautiful record, unblemished," Trump said.

The president added that he had a replacement candidate in mind: "somebody great … somebody with political capability."

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) praised two potential candidates who now serve in the House: Rep. Phil Roe, a Tennessee Republican who chairs the Veterans Affairs Committee, and Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican who held that job before Roe. The current acting VA secretary, Robert Wilkie, may also be a candidate, in part because he's already been vetted and confirmed as the Defense Department's personnel chief.

Trump took aim at Tester, who is running for reelection this year in a state the president won in 2016.

"I think Jon Tester has to have a big price to pay in Montana," he said.

Tester, in a statement, thanked "service members who bravely spoke out over the last week," pointing to his constitutional duty "to make sure the veterans of this nation get a strong, thoroughly vetted leader who will fight for them."

"The next secretary must have a commitment to reform a strained healthcare system and a willingness to stand up to special interests who want to privatize the VA," he said. Controversy over conservative efforts to turn more VA functions over to the private sector played a major role in Trump's firing of the previous VA chief, David Shulkin, who opposed that idea.

Trump campaigned on improving the VA, which has faced a slew of management problems for years.

Just hours after Jackson withdrew, Trump held an event at the White House honoring wounded veterans, underscoring the real-world impact the VA has. Surrounded by dozens of disabled veterans, Trump spoke about their unshakable will in the face of hardship and made a "sacred commitment."

"My pledge to you, our noble warriors, is that my administration will support you and your loved ones and your amazing families every single day, now and always," he said.

Trump, speaking from a teleprompter, did not mention Jackson. But he paused and raised his voice as he praised Wilkie, a late add to the guest list, for "doing a great job over at the VA."

Trump also recognized the fourth anniversary of the scandal at a VA hospital in Phoenix that highlighted concerns over patient care and wait times around the country. He emphasized his response, including a measure passed into law that makes it easier to fire employees. He cited his efforts to allow veterans to use more private medical providers — which he said would reduce wait times — as the next step in his reform efforts.

"We must make sure that this kind of tragedy never, ever happens again," Trump said.

Given the immense management challenges at the VA, Jackson's lack of management experience immediately became an issue for his nomination.

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Concerns on Capitol Hill deepened after senators saw a 2012 inspector general's report detailing "unprofessional behaviors," poor morale and a "toxic" unsustainable atmosphere at the White House medical office. That report may have been as damaging to Jackson's prospects among Republican senators as the more salacious allegations of drinking on the job.

In the wake of those allegations, few Republicans on Capitol Hill defended him, with some complaining that the White House had not done enough to answer their questions.

Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) devoted his morning remarks on the Senate floor Thursday to "Democrats slow-walking" Trump's nominees, but did not mention Jackson.

Ryan said he expected the House might still look into the allegations. "I don't know whether these allegations are baseless or not," he said. "I won't comment on his nomination, other than the fact that he probably did what he thought was in his best interest," he added.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a disabled Iraq war veteran, blamed Trump for creating "needless chaos" by firing Shulkin.

"His rash decision to replace Dr. Shulkin with someone so clearly unprepared for the job only made the problem worse," she said.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the nomination "another example of the culture of corruption, cronyism and incompetence of the Trump administration."

Nor did Jackson receive particularly strong support from veterans groups. Disabled American Veterans urged the administration "to work with veteran stakeholders to bring forward a well-qualified candidate" and praised employees for working on needed reforms "despite the lack of permanent leadership."

Earlier in the week, Trump said publicly that he did not know why Jackson was putting himself through the stress of the nomination, comments that foretold Thursday's withdrawal.

"I told Adm. Jackson just a little while ago … I said, 'What do you need this for?' " Trump said Tuesday.

On Thursday, he cited his prescience, recounting his conversation with Jackson.

"I even told him a day or two ago I saw where this is going," Trump said.

Twitter: @noahbierman

UPDATES:

2:50 p.m.: This article was updated with additional reaction.

10:05 a.m.: This article was updated with additional comments by Trump and other details.

This article was originally published at 5:30 a.m.

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