Trump's Embattled Veterans Pick Meets With White House Aides
(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Veterans Affairs Department, Ronny Jackson, met with White House officials on Wednesday night as aides prepared for his possible withdrawal following allegations that he drank to excess and loosely dispensed prescription drugs.
Jackson has denied the accusations, which were compiled by Democratic Senate committee staff and released earlier Wednesday.
He met with Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and deputy press secretaries Raj Shah and Hogan Gidley late Wednesday. He was escorted to the meeting by Zach Fuentes, an aide to Chief of Staff John Kelly.
Jackson declined to discuss the meeting when he emerged about 45 minutes later. “I look forward to talking to you guys in the next couple of days,” he told Bloomberg News.
Sanders said Jackson had given them debriefing on meetings he had on Capitol Hill.
Shah told CNN that the White House was preparing for Jackson’s possible withdrawal, but continued to defend him and said he’d be a good pick.
“We think he’ll make a great secretary of Veterans Affairs but this is a nasty process right now and we’re seeing it unfold right before us,” Shah said on CNN. "It’s very difficult when you’re being shot at by anonymous sources."
On Wednesday afternoon, Senator Jon Tester of Montana, the top ranking Democrat on the Veterans Affairs Committee, which is considering Jackson’s nomination, released a document with a list of allegations.
According to the document, Jackson wrecked a government vehicle while drunk and provided a “large supply” of the prescription opioid Percocet to a staffer without proper documentation.
Jackson, a Navy rear admiral and the White House physician, spoke briefly to reporters at the White House earlier Wednesday, telling them, “I have not wrecked a car, so I can tell you that,” and said he isn’t withdrawing from the process.
When asked about improper dispensing of opioids, Jackson said, “I have no idea where that’s coming from.”
According to the document, Jackson earned the nickname “Candyman” among White House staff for his willingness to provide drugs without documentation.
His confirmation has been embroiled in controversy since allegations emerged that he has engaged in improper behavior and management lapses. A planned confirmation hearing by the Veterans Affairs Committee was abruptly canceled this week as both Republican and Democratic lawmakers sought more information about Jackson’s background.
The two-page list compiled by Democrats -- citing 23 current and former colleagues of Jackson, most of whom are still in uniform -- breaks down “serious concerns” about his conduct into three categories: prescribing practices, hostile work environment, and drunkenness.
Among the accusations is that Jackson wrote himself prescriptions and had staff write prescriptions for each other to give to other people. It alleges that on at least one occasion he could not be reached when needed because he was drunk in his hotel room.
According to the document, Jackson would regularly hand out Ambien, a sleep aid, and Provigil, a wakefulness-promoting drug, to people flying on Air Force One “without triaging patient history.”
Jackson’s own comments from earlier this year indicate that he did have a practice of regularly providing Ambien to those flying on Air Force One to international locations. While giving reporters a briefing about Trump’s health in January, Jackson said he regularly recommends that everyone on the plane take a sleeping aid.
“The president does take some Ambien on occasion, like we all do, on overseas travel,” Jackson said. “So when we travel from one time zone to another time zone on the other side of the planet, I recommend that everyone on the plane take a sleep aid at certain times so that we can try our best to get on the schedule of our destination. So he has, on those occasions, done that.”
Jackson was also accused of fostering a hostile work environment. In the document, individuals were quoted describing him as “flat-out unethical” and “despicable,” operating as a “kiss up, kick down boss.” One nurse said her time working with Jackson at the White House “should have been the highlight of my military career but it was my worst assignment.”
The episode has not only thrown into doubt Jackson’s confirmation but also unleashed a bipartisan backlash against the White House over its vetting procedures.
The White House has struggled to defend its personnel selection process, which has produced record turnover and a series of controversy-plagued appointees. Jackson’s difficulties getting confirmed add to a string of personnel mishaps amid a backlog of unfilled positions across the government.
“It may be true on a general basis that there’s a problem with vetting,” said Chase Untermeyer, who was the director of presidential personnel under President George H.W. Bush “This particular case seems special and unique because it seems so clear that this a personnel choice of momentary inspiration on the part of the president as opposed to any traditional headhunting process.”
Speaking before the Democratic document was released, Sanders said Wednesday afternoon that Jackson’s work as a doctor to three different presidents meant he had undergone "more vetting than most nominees" and that he had been subject to four separate background investigations.
"There’s been a pretty thorough vetting process done by the FBI as well as three other independent investigations," Sanders said.
On Tuesday, as senior lawmakers were publicly airing doubts about whether the nomination could survive, White House officials sent reporters information about Jackson that included glowing reviews from former President Barack Obama.
When Jackson’s nomination was announced, White House officials said his high security clearance as a result of being in close proximity to the president was a factor considered.
Trump and Jackson spoke Tuesday about the allegations against him. While Jackson plans to continue pursuing his nomination, the White House is considering other options, Sanders told reporters Wednesday morning.
Trump said Tuesday that he advised Jackson earlier in the day to withdraw.
“I said to Dr. Jackson, what do you need it for?” Trump said at a news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron. “I don’t want to put a man through a process like this. It’s too ugly and disgusting.”
Several lawmakers publicly wondered whether the questions raised now about Jackson should have been considered by the White House before he was nominated.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared to lay blame for the episode on Trump, saying Tuesday that it was “up to the administration to do the vetting” and that questions about Jackson should be directed to the White House.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said the administration had failed to “adequately vet” Jackson -- and that the episode illustrated why his party had slow-walked nominations from the Trump administration, much to the consternation of the White House.
“So our Republican colleagues bemoan the pace of the nominations, but we see with the administration’s quick, sloppy vetting process that the Senate to vet nominees is more important than ever before,” the New York Democrat said.
“I just think that the White House does not vet their nominees,” said Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington, a member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Some veterans organizations, already approaching the Jackson selection with trepidation over his lack of management experience and unknown policy views, criticized the White House nomination process.
“This nomination can have life and death implications for us, and Donald Trump put as much thought into it as what to have for dinner,” Will Fischer, director of government relations for the liberal VoteVets organization, said in a statement. “Donald Trump cares so little about us that he decided to put someone he did not scrutinize in charge of our health care.”
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