White House doctor Jackson fights to save imperiled VA bid

Ronny Jackson
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House on Wednesday launched an all-out defense of Ronny Jackson’s nomination to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs amid concerns by Congress that President Donald Trump had not properly vetted him or others.

Jackson is fighting to salvage his imperiled nomination as more details emerge about accusations from his time as a top White House doctor, including repeated drunkenness and a “toxic” work environment. Trump has suggested publicly that Jackson may want to withdraw but privately is urging him to work for Senate confirmation. So far, Jackson is showing few signs of backing down.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Jackson had passed “at least four independent background checks” that found “no areas of concern.”

“He has received more vetting than most nominees,” Sanders said Wednesday.

White House legislative director Marc Short said Jackson “feels very strongly these are baseless accusations.”

Veterans groups are dismayed over the continuing uncertainty at the VA, already beset by infighting over improvements to veterans care.

“The American Legion is very concerned about the current lack of permanent leadership,” said Denise Rohan, national commander of The American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans organization.

The group opposed Trump’s firing of VA Secretary David Shulkin, an Obama administration holdover, and has not taken a position on Jackson. But Rohan urged action to approve a “strong, competent and experienced secretary.”

A watchdog report requested in 2012 and reviewed by The Associated Press found that Jackson and a rival physician exhibited “unprofessional behaviors” as they engaged in a power struggle over the White House medical unit.

The report by the Navy’s Medical Inspector General found a lack of trust in the leadership and low morale among staff members, who described the working environment as “being caught between parents going through a bitter divorce.”

“There is a severe and pervasive lack of trust in the leadership that has deteriorated to the point that staff walk on ‘eggshells,'” according to the assessment.

The report reviewed by the AP included no references to improper prescribing of drugs or the use of alcohol, separate allegations revealed by a Senate committee.

Jackson has declined to answer reporters’ questions about those allegations. The White House disputed that he had improperly administered medication and said the medical unit passed regular audits by the Controlled Substance Inventory Board.

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee postponed a hearing scheduled for Wednesday on Jackson’s nomination.

Trump insisted at a White House news conference Tuesday with the French president that he would stand behind Jackson. But he questioned why Jackson would want to put himself through the confirmation fight, which he characterized as unfair.

“What does he need it for? What do you need this for? To be abused by a bunch of politicians that aren’t thinking nicely about our country?” Trump asked.

Jackson, a White House physician since 2006, met privately with Trump in the Oval Office on Tuesday, and the president urged him to keep fighting to win confirmation, according to a White House official briefed on the meeting. The official, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions, said Jackson denied the allegations.

The White House released handwritten reports from Trump and former President Barack Obama praising Jackson’s leadership and medical care and recommending him for promotion.

A doomed VA nomination would be a political blow to the White House, which has faced criticism for sloppy screening of Cabinet nominees and tough confirmation battles in a Senate, where Republicans hold a slim 51-49 majority.

Shulkin was dismissed after an ethics scandal and mounting rebellion within the agency. But Jackson has faced numerous questions from lawmakers and veterans groups about whether he has the experience to manage the department of 360,000 employees serving 9 million veterans.

Allegations began surfacing late last week involving Jackson’s workplace practices, including claims of inappropriate behavior and overprescribing of prescription drugs, according to two aides who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the situation.

The complaints the White House heard include that he oversaw a poor work environment and that he had drunk alcohol on the job, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive personnel matter.

Detailing the allegations to NPR, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the committee’s top Democrat, said more than 20 current and retired military personnel had complained to the committee about Jackson. They included claims that Jackson was “repeatedly drunk” while on travel with Obama and that on overseas trips he excessively handed out prescription drugs to help travelers sleep and wake up.

Tester told CNN that Jackson was known inside the White House as “the candy man” because he would hand out prescription drugs “like candy.”

Asked if Jackson’s nomination was viable, the committee chairman, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said, “We’ll see.”

The two lawmakers sent a letter to Trump on Tuesday requesting additional information about Jackson. It demanded any communication between the Pentagon and the White House for the past 12 years regarding “allegations or incidents” involving Jackson.

The 2012 assessment suggested the White House consider replacing Jackson or Dr. Jeffrey Kuhlman — or both. Kuhlman was the physician to Obama at the time and had previously held the role occupied by Jackson: director of the White House medical unit.

According to the report, Jackson admitted he had failed to shield the White House medical unit from the leadership drama. He is quoted as saying he was willing to do what was necessary to straighten out the command, even if it “meant finding a new position in Navy Medicine.”

The report stated that the “vast majority” of those interviewed said Kuhlman had “irrevocably damaged his ability to effectively lead.” It added that “many also believe that CAPT Jackson has exhibited poor leadership,” but attributed those failures to the relationship with Kuhlman.

Jackson was named physician to the president in 2013, after Kuhlman left the unit.

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Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro, Catherine Lucey, Lolita Baldor, Alan Fram and Matthew Daly contributed to this report.

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