When President Trump announced in a tweet last month that he’d fired Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and intended to replace him with Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, the White House physician, many suggested this was an unwise move — and not just because Trump’s physician did not appear to have any experience that would prepare him to modernize an agency that employs 370,000 people.
In a New York Times op-ed, Norm Eisen, Obama’s former ethics czar, and Bandy X. Lee, a forensic psychiatrist at the Yale School of Medicine, said Trump was taking a big risk by announcing the nomination without properly vetting Jackson first:
One of us worked (just down the hall from Dr. Jackson, actually) on vetting hundreds of senior administration officials. Very presentable and capable individuals — sometimes even those with existing security clearances — are sometimes disqualified by the rigorous personnel investigations that are normally undertaken for cabinet positions. Such cabinet-level vets complement but are more thorough than a typical pre-existing security clearance, and can uncover conflicts, misdeeds or other disqualifying information.
They said they did not mean to suggest vetting would “uncover anything improper” about Jackson, but as it turns out, his confirmation hearing was just postponed over questions about his qualifications and conduct, which would have come up during that process.
Most veterans groups declined to give Jackson a strong endorsement, and in recent days even Republicans who sit on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee began expressing concerns about his qualifications. Over the weekend Axios alluded to other issues, reporting, “the White House is also aware of specific concerns about Jackson’s professional conduct in the Navy that have been taken to Jon Tester in his capacity as ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.”
Late on Monday, two days before Jackson was set to testify before the committee, White House and congressional aides said the hearing had been postponed indefinitely. According to CBS News, in recent days current and former White House medical staff shared concerns about Jackson’s behavior with the office of Senator Tester:
Sources familiar with the tales say that Tester’s staff is reviewing multiple allegations of a “hostile work environment.” The accusations include “excessive drinking on the job, improperly dispensing meds,” said one of the people familiar, who was granted anonymity to speak frankly about the situation. The other people familiar with the stories also confirmed those details.
Jackson has worked as White House physician under the last three administrations, and previously served as an emergency trauma doctor in Iraq. He was seen as someone well-liked by both Republicans and Democrats, and prior to this year he’d only received press coverage when he treated a girl who was bit by one of the Obamas’ dogs.
Then in January, Jackson gave Trump his highly anticipated physical, and declared the sedentary 71-year-old’s health “excellent,” repeating the term eight times during a press conference. He attributed this to Trump’s “incredibly good genes,” and claimed, “if he had a healthier diet over the last 20 years, he might live to be 200 years old.” Jackson’s fawning and at time unscientific description of Trump’s health was widely criticized. “I was alarmed — not about the president’s health, but the doctor’s,” quipped the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank.
Senators were vague on Monday night about their reasons for delaying Jackson’s confirmation hearing.
“I can tell you we’re vetting out Jackson,” Tester said. “I can’t get into specifics, but we’re doing our job to make sure he’s fit for the job.”
Lawmakers were also hesitant to confirm the nature of the claims against Jackson. “We need to know if allegations raised by others may have some factual basis. That’s the process of vetting that has to occur,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, after emerging from a meeting with fellow Democrats on the committee.
The White House has yet to publicly comment on the matter, but the Post reported that three administration officials said they’re worried Jackson’s nomination is in peril. At the very least, the incident shows why it’s best for both Trump and his nominees if they’re fully vetted before the president announces his picks — though with everyone in the Presidential Personnel Office busy “icing” each other, that may be a tall order.