During a news conference alongside the French president on Tuesday afternoon, President Trump made remarks about Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, his embattled pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, that left many with the impression that he wanted him to withdraw.
“I told Admiral Jackson just a little while ago, I said, ‘What do you need this for?’” Trump said.
He suggested several more times that Jackson, who’s currently the White House physician, shouldn’t bother with subjecting himself to scrutiny from lawmakers and journalists, concluding, “If I were him, I wouldn’t do it.”
But as we’ve learned, if you wait a few hours, Trump will often reverse himself. According to the Washington Post, during a meeting a short time later, Jackson managed to convince Trump that the multiple allegations that he created a “hostile work environment,” dispensed prescription medication too freely, and drank excessively on the job were untrue:
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 White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, an administration official said.
A senior administration official said Jackson claimed the allegations were unfair and “just not true.” It seems another motivation behind Trump’s desire to fight back was his refusal to admit another personal defeat:
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.
Meanwhile, new details were emerging about the allegations against Jackson. A 2012 inspector general report released on Tuesday afternoon found that he and Dr. Jeffrey Kuhlman, a rival in the White House Medical Unit, had behaved unprofessionally. Though the report placed more blame on Kuhlman, the working environment was described as “being caught between parents going through a bitter divorce.”
Then, on Tuesday evening, Senator Jon Tester, the top Democrat on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, described claims the panel received from more than 20 military employees in several interviews. He said the misconduct allegations mostly surrounded Jackson’s behavior on overseas trips when he was attending to President Obama. Per the New York Times:
On one trip during Barack Obama’s presidency, White House staff needed to reach Dr. Jackson for medical reasons and found him passed out in his hotel room after a night of drinking, Tester aides said. The staff members took the medical supplies they were looking for without waking Dr. Jackson.
“He is the primary attendant of the president, the most powerful man in the world,” Mr. Tester said in an interview late Tuesday. “You don’t know when he is going to need you.”
On CNN, Tester said they received reports of Jackson walking down the aisle way of the airplane during long presidential trips, offering prescription drugs that promote sleep or wakefulness to anyone who wanted them. Tester said they were told some White House staffers called Jackson the “candy man” because he “handed out prescriptive drugs like they were candy.”
The decision to postpone Jackson’s confirmation hearing, which was scheduled for this week, was bipartisan, and lawmakers from both parties expressed concerns about the allegations. However, some former colleagues have come to the nominee’s defense. More than a half-dozen former Obama administration employees told the Times that they never witnessed any of the behavior Jackson has been accused of.
“He always seemed to be to be alert, responsive, responsible,” said David Axelrod, who served as Obama’s senior adviser. “My impressions were positive. My interactions were positive. I never heard any complaints.”
Some White House insiders speculated to Politico that the leaks about Jackson were coming from within the administration. There were widespread concerns about his lack of management experience from the very start, and his nomination reportedly “rattled” West Wing staffers.
Regardless of the validity of the accusations against Jackson, even members of Trump’s own team blamed him (anonymously, of course) for generating yet another unnecessary scandal. Trump announced that he wanted Jackson to replace David Shulkin as VA secretary in a tweet last month, without even formally interviewing him first. Two senior officials told the Post that Jackson’s nomination had been handled “disastrously.”
White House officials were still scrambling to determine whether there was any truth to the claims on Tuesday, but in the meantime they released performance reviews in which President Obama praised Jackson. Leaders of the Veterans Affairs Committee have formally asked the Trump administration for “any and all communications” related to the allegations. Several lawmakers expressed annoyance that they were left to do the work of properly vetting Trump’s pick.
“It has been really careless, maybe even negligent, about the vetting in a number of these nominations,” said Democratic senator Richard Blumenthal, a member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski said Trump’s comments on Tuesday only made the problem worse.
“The president says, ‘Oh yeah, I wouldn’t move forward with it.’ I mean, what does that say? If the president is going to put forward somebody’s name, he needs to have the confidence in that individual,” Murkowski said. “And if it’s just like kind of a knee-jerk, here’s a warm body? Then his team needs to work to make sure that the president sees the short-sightedness of that.”