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Trump VA Pick Is Said to Plan Senate Fight, Defying Critics

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(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Veterans Affairs Department plans to pursue confirmation despite a review that a Senate committee opened into allegations of improper behavior and management lapses, two people familiar with the matter said.

The two people described White House physician Ronny Jackson’s intentions following an Oval Office meeting he had late Tuesday afternoon with Trump. Earlier in the day, Trump had publicly advised Jackson to withdraw from consideration.

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee postponed a confirmation hearing on Jackson’s confirmation scheduled for this week amid bipartisan concern about the allegations. Senator Jon Tester, the panel’s ranking Democrat, said in an interview on NPR’s “All Things Considered” that the accusations included creating a hostile work environment, over-prescribing drugs and repeated drunkenness on duty.

One Republican senator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said persisting with Jackson’s nomination was politically unwise and that some other GOP senators aren’t sure whether to support the nominee and are waiting for further information on the allegations.

Trump said at a news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday that he had suggested to Jackson that he withdraw.

’Totally His Decision’

"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 back out.

Senator Johnny Isakson, the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, announced early Tuesday he and Tester decided to delay the confirmation hearing and sent a letter to Trump seeking more information on Jackson, a Navy rear admiral.

Tester said in the NPR interview that the committee had received allegations against Jackson from 20 current and retired military personnel, including that he was “repeatedly drunk while on duty, while traveling” on presidential trips overseas.

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.”

2012 Report

A 2012 Navy Medical Inspector General’s assessment of the White House medical office reported poor morale because of a “bitter relationship” between Jackson, then head of the White House Medical Unit, and Captain Jeffrey Kuhlman, then the president’s physician. Jackson was later promoted to be the president’s physician.

Jackson told reporters at the Capitol earlier that he was eager to 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 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.

’Allegations or Incidents’

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 assertions about Jackson’s conduct hadn’t been substantiated, but they must be addressed.

Isakson, a Georgia Republican, declined to comment further, aside from saying that he wasn’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

“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.”

Vetting Process Criticized

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.

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