The White House mounts full defense of Ronny Jackson, Trump’s VA nominee
The White House on Tuesday mounted an all-out defense of President Donald Trump’s embattled pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs as serious allegations of misbehavior threatened to tank the nomination.
Trump met with Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the White House physician and VA secretary nominee, in the Oval Office on Tuesday evening. A White House official described it as a “positive meeting,” adding that the president pledged to stand behind Jackson and push back on the allegations against him. Jackson, in turn, said he had no current plans to withdraw his nomination.
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Jackson, whom Trump announced as his VA nominee via Twitter last month, is facing allegations of creating a hostile workplace environment, over-prescribing medication and drinking while on duty.
The allegations, which are circulating among members of Congress, could further complicate an already difficult Senate confirmation. Lawmakers in both parties had already raised concerns about Jackson’s lack of experience, worrying that he doesn’t have the chops to run the government’s second-largest bureaucracy.
But by Tuesday night, the White House was circulating talking points aimed at countering the allegations, saving Jackson’s nomination and heading off another embarrassing defeat of one of the president’s Cabinet picks.
“Dr. Jackson’s record as a White House physician is impeccable,” a senior administration official said in a statement. “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.”
The allegations against Jackson have reignited lingering paranoia in the West Wing that administration officials are working against the president’s priorities. It’s no secret that many White House officials harbored doubts about Jackson’s nomination, and several top West Wing aides believe that his critics in the administration are trying to kill the nomination or pressure Trump to choose a different nominee.
But Trump, who has for years complained that he is being unfairly treated by the news media and his political opponents, is sympathetic to the doctor’s situation, according to another White House official.
Earlier Tuesday, Trump appeared to send mixed signals about Jackson, telling reporters during a news conference that he would “always” support Jackson, but openly musing about why he’d want the job in the face of intense media scrutiny.
“He’s a fine man. I’ll always stand behind him,” Trump said about the White House physician, adding that it was Jackson’s choice to remain the nominee or withdraw. “What does he need it for? To be abused by a bunch of politicians that aren’t thinking nicely about our country? I really don’t think, personally, he should do it, but it’s totally his … decision.”
During the Tuesday news conference, Trump wasn’t sending a message to Jackson that he should step down, the White House official said. The president was instead publicly reflecting his frustration at seeing somebody he likes face such intense and personal criticism.
But others in the White House believe it is foolhardy to continue backing a nominee who was facing a rocky confirmation even before the rumors began circulating, given his lack of experience leading such a large organization. One administration official privately expressed annoyance that Trump’s penchant for nominating his friends and allies with little vetting had led to another confirmation mess.
Among the documents provided by the White House in its bid to push back on the allegations were evaluations from Trump and President Barack Obama, including handwritten notes from both from 2014 to 2017.
“Ronny does a great job — genuine enthusiasm, poised under pressure, incredible work ethic and follow through,” Obama scrawled on a 2016 report. “Ronny continues to inspire confidence with the care he provides to me, my family and my team. Continue to promote ahead of peers.”
Obama recommended “early promote” in each of the three evaluations provided by the White House.
The White House also distributed two inspector general reports from 2012 and 2013, when Jackson was director of the White House Medical Unit and Jeffrey Kuhlman was physician to the president. The reports painted a strained relationship between the two that created problems throughout the unit, but seemed to place most of the blame on Kuhlman. Jackson replaced Kuhlman as physician to the president in July 2013.
Meanwhile, lawmakers announced that they would delay Jackson’s confirmation hearing — which was scheduled for Wednesday — in order to get more information about the allegations. The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee is demanding 12 years of documents about Jackson’s service as the presidential physician and in the White House medical unit.
The allegations were in full public view by Tuesday afternoon after Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the top Democrat on the committee, gave an interview with NPR outlining the allegations. Tester said allegations included “improper dispensing of prescription drugs, repeatedly drunk while on duty while traveling and creating a toxic work environment.”
White House officials first became aware of the rumors about Jackson when Capitol Hill aides passed along what they were hearing, one of the White House officials said.
Privately, Republicans are fretting that a flood of bad press could prove unsustainable and derail the nomination to lead the sprawling agency.
“I can’t tell” if it’s in trouble, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said. “I don’t know if the allegations are credible. If they are, it’s a serious matter.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was noncommittal on Tuesday morning when asked whether he had confidence in Jackson. “We are going to wait and see what the administration and Chairman Isakson recommend, McConnell said, referring to Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).