The White House rallied around Ronny Jackson’s nomination to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs late Tuesday as the president’s former doctor was besieged by complaints that he improperly dispensed drugs, created a hostile workplace and became intoxicated on duty.
The administration’s decision to fight on in defense of the nomination came hours after President Trump publicly suggested that Jackson should consider pulling out because of the “abuse” he was facing. But by late afternoon, Trump huddled with Jackson, and White House aides vowed to fight the charges.
“I don’t want to put a man through a process like this,” Trump had said earlier when asked about Jackson’s nomination during a joint news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron. “It’s too ugly, and it’s too disgusting.”
Trump added: “I said to Dr. Jackson, ‘What do you need it for? To be abused by a bunch of politicians?’ . . . If I was him . . . I wouldn’t do it.”
Jackson’s worsening problems flared into public view Tuesday when lawmakers nixed his confirmation hearing scheduled for Wednesday. The nomination was officially postponed by Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, the Republican chair of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the ranking Democrat.
Later Tuesday, Tester said during an interview with NPR that the committee had heard complaints from more than 20 current and former military members that Jackson had improperly dispensed drugs, had become intoxicated on professional trips and belittled staff members.
“We were told stories where he was repeatedly drunk while on duty where his main job was to take care of the most powerful man in the world,” Tester said. “That’s not acceptable.”
Tester said concerns about the allegations were “bipartisan in nature,” including from Isakson.
A spokeswoman for Isakson said that the senator remained undecided about the nomination but continues to harbor serious concerns.
Hours after the president’s news conference, more allegations emerged about Jackson, including a 2012 government report that said he exhibited “unprofessional behavior” and should be removed from his post.
“There is a severe and pervasive lack of trust in the leadership that has deteriorated to the point that staff walk on ‘eggshells,’ ” the report found. It described morale under his leadership as in the doldrums and said the office was beset by fighting between Jackson and Jeffrey Kuhlman, President Obama’s doctor at the time.
It was another episode where a previously respected figure was lifted to prominence in Trump’s orbit - only to have their sheen and reputation tarnished. Jackson had been widely hailed by three presidents and their aides as competent, charming and fiercely protective before Trump stunned Washington last month by picking the doctor to run the country’s second-largest federal agency.
Jackson declined to comment on the accusations, and senior aides said that he showed no willingness to drop out Tuesday afternoon as he trudged through meetings with senators on Capitol Hill. Privately, he dismissed some of the charges to senior aides, according to administration officials, and said he was being unfairly attacked.
“No, I’m looking forward to the hearing,” Jackson said. “I was looking forward to doing it tomorrow, so I’m looking forward to getting it rescheduled and answering all the questions.”
White House officials said they were aware of accusations that Jackson dispensed medicine to aides or others, including reporters, without rigorous scrutiny. But several senior officials said the drugs were usually nonnarcotic ones, such as Ambien. They also said that Jackson was never intoxicated or drinking while working in the White House near Trump, but may have had too much to drink on occasion while taking overseas trips.
The White House released several other reports that were laudatory toward Jackson late Tuesday, including his performance reviews for the past four years.
“Ronny does a great job - genuine enthusiasm, poised under pressure, incredible work ethic and follow through. Ronny continues to inspire confidence with the care he provides to me, my family and my team. Continue to promote ahead of peers,” a 2016 note from Obama read.
In a private meeting with Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) on Capitol Hill, Jackson denied any wrongdoing, according to the senator. The White House doctor also specifically denied ever drinking on duty during that meeting, according to a spokesman for the senator.
“He does deny that he’s done anything wrong in his service to the country and particularly his time at the White House as a physician in the medical unit,” Moran said, and Jackson “indicated that he knows of nothing that would prohibit him from being qualified, capable and the right person to be secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.”
Two senior officials said that Jackson’s nomination had been handled “disastrously,” in the words of one, and overshadowed by fights over secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo and CIA Director nominee Gina Haspel. Going forward, one of these people said, more attention will be put on Jackson.
Senior White House officials said Trump was convinced by a coterie of aides, and Jackson, that the accusations were overblown. In the meeting Tuesday afternoon, Jackson offered to withdraw, a senior administration official said, but said he would prefer to push forward. Others present in the meeting included Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, an administration official said.
Jackson said the accusations were unfair “and just not true,” a senior administration official said, describing the meeting.
Trump later told aides he had already taken a lot of flak for an unorthodox pick -- and didn’t want to give in.
“The president gave us the full green light to push back hard,” the official said.
Jackson’s nomination also marked the shattering of another norm in Trump’s Washington: VA secretaries have historically been approved unanimously, even sometimes by a voice vote. The president nominated David Shulkin, who had led VA’s health system under Obama, in the tradition of having a bipartisan Cabinet. But he soured on Shulkin and removed him after an inspector’s general report showed that Shulkin took exorbitantly costly trips and misled others about them.
There was uncertain congressional support for Jackson, a longtime presidential physician with little management experience, even before questions were raised about his conduct.
It was unclear why White House aides had not reviewed the allegations before Jackson was nominated last month. He was picked seemingly on a whim by Trump, who fondly calls him “the Doc” and did not formally interview him before nominating him -- and ousting Shulkin by tweet.
Concerns about Jackson were bipartisan. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) remained uncommitted to supporting the nominee, and a number of senior GOP aides on Capitol Hill estimated that his chances of confirmation were slim.
Isakson had called Kelly twice in recent days to express concerns about new information, spokeswoman Amanda Maddox said.
Isakson and Tester wrote to Trump on Tuesday morning, asking the White House to provide all documents related to Jackson’s service in the White House medical unit as well as all communications between the Pentagon and the White House military office since 2006 that involve allegations or incidents connected to the physician. The senators also requested information the White House has about any allegations involving Jackson that were never relayed to the Pentagon.
In addition to Jackson’s lack of management experience at a large organization, the physician had come under fire for his glowing appraisal of Trump’s health after the president had his annual physical in January. Jackson declared that the president might live to the age of 200 with a healthier diet.
Isakson said the confirmation hearing is being delayed because the committee needs “some time to get more information.”
“I’m concerned that the press is making up far too many stories that aren’t true before we even get a chance to have a meeting,” Isakson said after meeting privately with Tester on Tuesday morning. “So I think Mr. Jackson and myself and Sen. Tester and everybody in Congress need to take a deep breath.”
A leading veterans group said Tuesday that it was important for the Senate to fully vet a nominee to lead the department, which has had seven secretaries since the start of the war in Afghanistan.
“On this critical leadership position at this turbulent time, [the United States] cannot afford a misfire by the White House,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “IAVA members nationwide are calling on the Senate to do its job at this defining time and ensure that any nominee for VA Secretary will live up to this awesome responsibility.”
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) a member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said that Trump didn’t take the time to send over a fully vetted nominee.
“It is sloppy, it is disrespectful to our veterans and it is wrong,” Murray said.