Trump's nominee for the VA is on the ropes

Trump's nominee for the VA is on the ropes
© Getty Images

President TrumpDonald John TrumpComey responds to Trump with Mariah Carey gif: 'Why are you so obsessed with me?' Congress to get election security briefing next month amid Intel drama New York man accused of making death threats against Schumer, Schiff MORE's pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs was in the spotlight Tuesday as allegations of workplace misconduct swirled, and the president opened the door to his nominee's withdrawal.

Staffers on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee are looking into charges Adm. Ronny Jackson created a hostile work environment, excessively drank on the job and improperly dispensed medications.

ADVERTISEMENT

The allegations have roiled Jackson’s nomination, which was already facing skepticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. They have also raised questions about the Trump administration's vetting of Jackson.

A Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing scheduled for Wednesday has been indefinitely postponed while panel leaders investigate.

Chairman Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonProgressive group backs Senate candidates in Georgia, Iowa Overnight Health Care: Trump budget calls for cutting Medicaid, ACA by T | Trump proposes removing FDA authority over tobacco | Lawmakers frustrated by lack of emergency funds for coronavirus Anti-abortion group backs Loeffler's election campaign after opposing her Senate appointment MORE (R-Ga.) and Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterDemocratic senator: 'The ultimate of ironies' for Trump to hit Romney for invoking his faith Committee on Veterans Affairs sends important message during tense Senate time Democrats cry foul over Schiff backlash MORE (D-Mont.), the panel's ranking member, asked the White House for a wide range of documents to try to assess the claims.

“I'm doing my job as chairman. I just want the truth to get out when it's supposed to get out for the people that need to hear it, and that's the committee," Isakson said.

Tester, in an interview with NPR Tuesday, elaborated on the allegations. Allegedly, Jackson was "repeatedly drunk while on duty" and screamed at and belittled his staff. He added that “more than 20” military personnel have come forward to speak about Jackson’s conduct. 

Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsOvernight Defense: Pentagon policy chief resigns at Trump's request | Trump wishes official 'well in his future endeavors' | Armed Services chair warns against Africa drawdown after trip GOP chairman after Africa trip: US military drawdown would have 'real and lasting negative consequences' Trump pick for Fed seat takes bipartisan fire MORE (R-S.D.), who also sits on the committee, said the allegations were made last week, but members were not made aware of them until they had a phone call with Isakson over the weekend.

The Veterans' Affairs Committee typically operates in a bipartisan fashion, and Rounds noted that when Isakson floated the idea of delaying the hearing, members said they would support him “whichever way he decided.”

Tester told reporters that even though the allegations are unsubstantiated, he finds them credible.

“They're credible enough that we need to vet it,” Tester said, and added the soonest a hearing could be rescheduled was within 10 days.

Tester said he thinks Jackson’s nomination is still salvageable.  

Yet it is difficult to see how Jackson will remain as the nominee after Trump, who acted alone to pick him for the job, effectively told him he would be better off if he stepped aside.

"If I were him, I wouldn't do it,” Trump said on Tuesday.

During a press conference at the White House with French President Emmanuel Macron, Trump said he is standing by Jackson, but suggested that Jackson should drop out rather than confront “abuse” from politicians.

“This is a vicious group of people that malign. What do you need this for? … You’re too fine a person,” Trump said he told Jackson.

Later on Tuesday, Trump met with Jackson at the White House for what was described as a positive meeting. News reporters after the two met said Jackson intended to fight for his confirmation.

When Trump announced on Twitter last month that he was nominating Jackson, it took many in Washington by surprise. The nomination process moved quickly.

The Senate only received paperwork from the Trump administration formalizing the nomination last week, and Jackson's policy views on a range of subjects are unknown.

Jackson, 50, is a rear admiral in the Navy who has served as a White House physician for the past three administrations, and was the physician for both President Obama and Trump. But his lack of experience in running an organization as large as the VA had already drawn questions about his qualifications.

Many believed he needed to impress members at his hearing to ensure his confirmation in the closely-divided Senate, where the GOP has a tenuous 51-49 majority.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTop GOP super PAC spent money on NC Democrat Everytown plans ad blitz on anniversary of House background check bill Kentucky state official says foreign adversaries 'routinely' scan election systems MORE (R-Ky.) declined to say on Tuesday if Jackson should withdraw his nomination, deferring to Isakson and the Trump administration. McConnell sidestepped a question on whether he knew about the allegations when he met with Jackson late last week.  

Jackson met with committee members on Capitol Hill Tuesday, and expressed disappointment in a hallway interview with MSNBC about the postponement of the hearing, saying he had been looking forward to it. But he did not comment on the allegations.

Sen. Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranThe Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' The 8 Republicans who voted to curb Trump's Iran war powers MORE (R-Kan.) told reporters after his meeting with the nominee that he had yet to see any of the allegations against Jackson, and that Jackson himself denied the allegations.

“He does deny he’s done anything wrong in the service to the country,” Moran said. “He indicated he knows of nothing that would prohibit him from being qualified, capable and the right person to be the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.”

Moran said it’s important not to jump to conclusions, and wondered aloud why nobody raised these concerns before.

“In some ways you start with the premise that a member of the military ... has gone through review after review in his promotions,” Moran said. “I think it’s very premature to reach any conclusions about any so-called allegations that are out there.”

Democrats seized on the allegations as a failure of the White House to properly vet nominees.

“The administration has been abysmal in vetting and the lapses and failures regarding Ronny Jackson are only the latest example,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told reporters. “These failures in vetting are a profound disservice to our nation’s veterans as well as to Adm. Jackson himself.”

“It is really frustrating to me that this administration continues to not vet, or sloppily send over a nominee that leaves us to really vet them and look at serious questions,” said Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayOvernight Health Care: Senate panel to hold hearing on US coronavirus response | Dems demand Trump withdraw religious provider rule | Trump Medicaid proposal sparks bipartisan backlash Democratic senators urge Trump administration to request emergency funding for coronavirus response Democrats demand Trump administration withdraw religious provider rule MORE (D-Wash.).

Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownTrump pick for Fed seat takes bipartisan fire On The Money: Deficit spikes 25 percent through January | Mnuchin declines to say why Trump pulled Treasury nominee who oversaw Roger Stone case | Lawmakers trade insults over Trump budget cuts Mnuchin defends Treasury regulations on GOP tax law MORE (D-Ohio) said there have been a “significant” number of people coming forward to talk to the committee about Jackson.

“People that knew him, or know him, have worked with him, in the military and former military that are willing to talk to investigators about him,” Brown said.

“And why wasn't the White House doing that?" he added.

Alexander Bolton, Jordan Fabian and Jordain Carney contributed.