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Trump suggests his Veterans Affairs nominee may want to withdraw as allegations swirl

US President Donald J. Trump’s nominee to be Secretary of Veteran Affairs Ronny Jackson visits Capitol Hill, Washington, USA - 24 Apr 2018
Rear Adm. Dr. Ronny Jackson, President Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.
(Michael Reynolds / EPA-Shutterstock)

President Trump on Tuesday openly nudged Dr. Ronny Jackson toward withdrawing as his nominee to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, publicly raising the idea shortly after senators canceled a confirmation hearing in order to investigate allegations of inappropriate behavior by the White House doctor.

“I told Adm. Jackson just a little while ago … I said, ‘What do you need this for?’” Trump said during a White House news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron.

Trump said the decision whether to continue as the nominee was up to Jackson, the chief White House physician and a Navy rear admiral. But, the president added, “If I were him … the fact is, I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t do it.”

Trump said he wasn’t aware of the specific allegations against his nominee, who was a surprise pick to much of the White House staff when the president named him in late March. Instead, he blamed Democrats for what loomed as a tortuous nomination process. He called the opposition to Jackson “vicious” and said the nominee was being punished in retaliation for the administration’s success in pushing Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo past his opposition.

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The president said that he would stand behind Jackson if he chose to remain the nominee to head the federal government’s second-largest department. But six times the president recounted asking Jackson why he would choose to proceed — sending what appeared to be a deliberate signal that he bow out.

Trump also noted that Jackson faces an “experience problem” — senators have questioned Jackson’s lack of management experience — although he insisted that “nobody has the experience” of a medical system as complex as the VA.

A person close to the nominee said “Jackson’s stomach” would determine whether he withdraws or tries to weather the scrutiny. The person was not authorized to discuss the matter on the record.

Just before the president spoke, Jackson had been meeting with senators who were to take up his nomination on Wednesday. That hearing was abruptly postponed.

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Jackson’s nomination had already faced difficulty because of the concerns about his lack of experience.

Late last week, senators said, a new front opened as allegations were made against Jackson by some past professional colleagues. The New York Times first reported that the claims included overprescribing drugs, drinking on the job and contributing to a hostile environment in the White House medical office.

In a brief hallway interview with NBC News at mid-morning Tuesday, Jackson said he was “looking forward” to having the hearing rescheduled.

Asked about the allegations, Jackson replied: “I’m looking forward to the hearing so we can sit down and I can explain everything to everyone and answer all the senators’ questions.”

Some of the concerns forwarded to the Senate appear to come from an inspector general’s report from 2012 titled a “Command Climate Assessment” of the White House medical office. The report is the sort of document that would have been central to any normal vetting of a nominee, highlighting the lack of scrutiny that Jackson underwent before Trump picked him.

The six-page document, reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, portrayed a power struggle between Jackson, who was leading the White House medical unit at the time, and another physician, Jeffrey Kuhlman, who was serving as the president’s personal physician. It painted a dire picture of Jackson’s efforts to manage a much smaller bureaucracy than the VA, a circumstance likely to play into existing concerns among lawmakers from both parties.

The report, based on interviews with employees, said the two men were constantly undercutting each other, eviscerating the unit’s morale. It detailed a “severe and pervasive lack of trust in the leadership that has deteriorated to the point that staff walk on ‘eggshells’” because of “open division” between the two men.

Both men exhibited “unprofessional behaviors,” the report said, describing the atmosphere as “toxic and not sustainable.”

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In response, a senior White House official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said Jackson did nothing wrong and would not be “railroaded by a bitter ex-colleague.”

“Dr. Jackson’s record as a White House physician is impeccable,” the official said. “He has improved unit morale, received glowing reviews and promotions under Republican and Democrat presidents, and has been given a clean vet from the FBI.”

Senators on Tuesday said that the White House seemed to have been caught unaware by the criticisms of Jackson, who had previously been best known for the glowing descriptions he offered of Trump’s health during a briefing with reporters in January. At one point in that briefing, Jackson joked that had the 71-year-old Trump not suffered from a weakness for fast food, “he might live to be 200 years old.”

His public show of support for the president may have played a role in Trump’s decision to nominate Jackson and in the administration’s lax vetting, said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

“The White House clearly didn’t pay enough attention to this,” said Brown, who added that it seemed apparent that the president “liked him in part because he gave the glowing description” of Trump’s health.

“His staff has learned over one bad appointment, one unqualified, one incompetent, one flawed appointment after another there’s no standing in the way,” Brown said. “And standing in the way would be vetting the person, saying, ‘Wait a minute.…The White House does not follow that pattern.’”

Like other senators, Brown would not discuss the details of the allegations, other than to say they were serious and had not been confirmed. Several senators said they were waiting for background reports from the FBI and other agencies.

Republicans were more reluctant to criticize the president, but some appeared frustrated that a Trump nominee again had been threatened — and senators blindsided — by the administration’s lackluster background checks.

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“If it is true, it’s a vetting mess,” a grim-faced Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said, referring to the allegations against the nominee. (An aide later insisted Tillis had said a “vetting miss.”)

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), like Tillis a member of the committee that had planned to take up the Jackson nomination this week, called the circumstances “a profound disservice” to veterans as well as to Jackson himself.

“The questions that are festering and expanding now should be addressed right away,” he said, insisting he was withholding judgment until more investigation was done. The administration’s vetting flaws, he said, “unfortunately are symptomatic of a broader failure to properly review and scrutinize the records of its nominees.”

The delays in the Jackson nomination came at an awkward time for Senate Republicans. Angered at Democrats who they blame for slow-walking nominations, Republicans were considering a measure to curtail debate over future nominees. The Jackson situation at minimum gave Democrats the argument — which they made throughout the day Tuesday — that the Senate should have a full debate over nominations that the administration has hurriedly put forth.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he had not spoken to the president and was “awaiting a signal” about the fate of the Jackson nomination.

“Look, it’s up to the administration to do the vetting,” he said when asked about the adequacy of the Jackson background checks. “And I think those are the kind of questions you ought to direct to them.”

The latest from Washington »

For more on politics from Cathleen Decker »

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker


UPDATES:

3:00 p.m.: This article was updated with a comment from an aide to Sen. Tillis.

This article was originally published at 3:50 p.m. April 24.


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