Trump Signals His Veterans Affairs Nominee May Need to Withdraw

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump said White House physician Ronny Jackson should consider withdrawing his nomination as Veterans Affairs secretary as a Senate panel opened a review into allegations of improper behavior and management lapses.

Trump Signals His Veterans Affairs Nominee May Need to Withdraw

Trump said at a news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron Tuesday that he advised Jackson earlier in the day to withdraw.

"I said to Dr. Jackson, what do you need it for?” Trump said. “I don’t want to put a man through a process like this. It’s too ugly and disgusting.” He later added, “I really don’t think personally he should do it, but it’s totally his, I would stand behind him, totally his decision."

Though Trump couched his comments as a defense of Jackson, his statement was a remarkable public signal to a nominee under fire. Trump repeated several times that he thought Jackson should withdraw.

Trump and Jackson met in the Oval Office later in the afternoon, a White House official said.

The president spoke hours after Senator Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, said he and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Jon Tester, decided to delay a hearing on Jackson’s nomination that had been scheduled for Wednesday and sent a letter to Trump seeking more information.

“The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is postponing the hearing to consider the nominee to be secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in light of new information presented to the committee,” Isakson and Tester said in a joint statement released Tuesday. “We will continue looking into these serious allegations and have requested additional information from the White House.”

Tester said in an interview with National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” that the allegations included that Jackson created a hostile work environment, overprescribed drugs and was “repeatedly drunk while on duty, while traveling” on presidential trips overseas.

He said the committee had received allegations from 20 military personnel.

Jackson was portrayed as “abusive toward staff” and a someone who “belittles” people, Tester said. “Basically creating an environment where the staff felt they needed to walk on eggshells around him.”

Jackson told reporters at the Capitol earlier that he was eager face the confirmation hearing though he didn’t respond directly to questions about the allegations

“I’m was looking forward the hearing tomorrow kind of disappointed that it’s been postponed, but I’m looking forward to getting it rescheduled and answering everybody’s questions,” he said in a video published by NBC News.

Trump at the news conference defended Jackson, a Navy rear admiral, as “a great leader” and brushed aside criticism that he lacked sufficient management experience to run the federal government’s second-largest department, after the Defense Department.

The Veterans health system “is so big you could run the biggest hospital system in the world and it’s small time compared to the Veterans Administration,” Trump said. “So nobody has the experience.”

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters he would wait to hear from Trump and Isakson on “what they believe the way forward should be” on the nomination.

In their letter to Trump, Isakson and Tester requested all communications between the Defense Department and the White House Military Office “regarding allegations or incidents involving Rear Admiral Jackson from 2006 to present.”

They also are seeking any documents, “including those developed during the course of an investigation,” held by any office in the executive office of the president “that were never communicated to the Department of Defense or Offices of Inspector General.”

Several lawmakers said the allegations haven’t been substantiated, but they must be addressed.

Isakson, a Georgia Republican, declined to say anything more at the Capitol. He said he isn’t sure when, or whether, the hearing might be rescheduled. Tester, of Montana, said, “We’re still working on the vetting.”

Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said it was too soon to say whether that panel would become involved in reviewing or investigating the allegations.

“It may not be an issue shortly,” Inhofe said. “He may not progress further.”

The Trump administration earlier in the day defended Jackson

White House Defense

“Admiral Jackson has been on the front lines of deadly combat and saved the lives of many others in service to this country,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said in a statement. “He’s served as the physician to three presidents -- Republican and Democrat -- and been praised by them all. Admiral Jackson’s record of strong, decisive leadership is exactly what’s needed at the VA to ensure our veterans receive the benefits they deserve.”

Several lawmakers from both parties criticized the White House for failing to do a thorough job investigating its own nominees.

“I just think the White House does not vet their nominees so it leaves us as members having to look at their personal and leadership and other qualities,” said Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington, a member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “And they didn’t do a good job and now we’re doing it.”

Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who isn’t on the panel considering the nomination, said the allegations “raise questions about the White House vetting process,” and added that she had concerns about Jackson even before the new questions came to light.

She said she wants answers as to “whether he has sufficient experience to manage the second-largest department in the federal government.”

Jackson was nominated to replace Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, who Trump fired on March 28. Shulkin is a former hospital executive who was a holdover from the Obama administration and who initially won Trump’s favor for his efforts to overhaul the long-troubled system for veterans health care.

He was ousted after questions about his official travel and amid an internal administration fight over how much of the medical care delivered to veterans could be outsourced to private insurers.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.