- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 26, 2018

Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson’s decision to drop his bid to run the Department of Veterans Affairs set off a new round of recriminations, with President Trump saying he fell to a partisan hatchet job and Democrats saying a competent White House never would have offered him as a nominee in the first place.

Dr. Jackson, the White House’s top physician, pulled out as his nomination for VA chief was buried in an avalanche of accusations that included being drunk on the job, handing out prescription drugs like a “candy man” and creating a hostile workplace environment.

“Unfortunately, because of how Washington works, these false allegations have become a distraction for this president and the important issue we must be addressing — how we give the best care to our nation’s heroes,” he said in a statement.

He called the more than 20 accusations of inappropriate and sometimes potentially criminal behavior “completely false and fabricated.”

“If they had any merit, I would not have been selected, promoted and entrusted to serve in such a sensitive and important role as physician to three presidents over the past 12 years,” he said.

Mr. Trump, who earlier pledged to stand by his nominee, said Dr. Jackson was the victim of a smear campaign.

“Welcome to the swamp,” he said in a phone call to Fox News’ “Fox & Friends.”

He said Democrats went after Dr. Jackson when they couldn’t derail the nomination of Mike Pompeo, whom the Senate confirmed Thursday for secretary of state.

“The Democrats are obstructionists. It’s horrible what they’re doing,” said the president.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, shot back that the president had only himself to blame.

“The allegations swirling around the nomination of Dr. Jackson were troubling, raised lots of questions, but the real blame here falls on the administration for once again being sloppy and careless in the vetting process,” he said. “Dr. Jackson didn’t go through a careful vet, where some of these things might have been discovered beforehand, and he wouldn’t have had to go through the process he went through.”

Dr. Jackson’s nomination was closely scrutinized from the start because of his lack of experience running a large organization or anything that remotely resembles the sprawling bureaucracy of the VA.

The VA is the second-largest department in the federal government, and it is plagued by management problems.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and veterans groups were surprised by Mr. Trump’s pick of Dr. Jackson for the formidable task.

Mr. Schumer said Democrats didn’t go looking for dirt on Dr. Jackson but people, including military service members, came to them with startling stories about the admiral.

“Dr. Jackson went through a maelstrom, and he should tell his patient, I guess, the president, that he, the president, is what caused this problem by not properly vetting, by making these decisions on the fly, by making sure they don’t count,” Mr. Schumer said.

Rep. Julia Brownley, California Democrat and ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs health subcommittee, said veterans deserve a strong and steady hand leading the VA.

“Sadly, the chaos that the White House has wrought throughout this process is a grave disservice to these returning heroes,” she said.

Meanwhile, Dr. Jackson continued his job at the White House.

“Adm. Jackson is a doctor in the United States Navy assigned to the White House and is here at work today,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Dr. Jackson adds his name to a list of two dozen of Mr. Trump’s nominees who called it quits rather than continue the confirmation process, including fast-food executive Andrew Puzder for commerce secretary, Rep. Tom Marino, Pennsylvania Republican, for drug czar and former Sheriff David Clarke for assistant secretary of homeland security.

Nominees have withdrawn from consideration for jobs at nearly every agency, including the Pentagon and the Departments of Agriculture, Energy, Commerce and State.

Senate Democrats have repeatedly put up roadblocks in the confirmation process and subjected nominees to brutal confirmation hearings. They accused then-Sen. Jeff Sessions of being a racist before confirming him as attorney general.

The VA has been under fire since reports during the Obama administration of veterans dying while stuck on secret wait lists. Congress and the administration have tried to make changes, but reports of mismanagement have continued to mount.

The slow pace of progress, combined with a clash over vision for the VA, led to the ouster of Mr. Trump’s original secretary, David Shulkin, last month. He was a senior VA official under the Obama administration and had been kept on for continuity.

Dan Caldwell, executive director of Concerned Veterans for America, urged the president to take time to “carefully select and vet a new nominee for VA secretary.” He said acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie is fully capable of managing the department in the meantime.

“Considering the tremendous challenges that the last three VA secretaries have faced, it is important that a capable individual with a high level of integrity is selected for this important Cabinet position,” Mr. Caldwell said.

Mr. Trump commended Mr. Wilkie at a White House event Thursday to kick off the annual Wounded Warrior Projects’ Soldier Ride, a four-day adaptive cycling ride for wounded veterans.

The president recognized Mr. Wilkie in the crowd and said he was “doing a great job over at the VA, I can tell you that.”

Surrounded by more than two dozen wounded veterans, Mr. Trump vowed to overhaul the VA, reaffirming his campaign promise to veterans.

“Our pledge to you, our noble warriors, is that my administration will support you and your loved ones every single day,” he said. “We will forever be grateful for the sacrifice you made for us.”

The day before Dr. Jackson dropped out, Democrats on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee released a two-page list of the accusations. It included a new report that he got drunk at a Secret Service going-away party and wrecked a government vehicle.

He was accused of writing himself prescriptions and handing out large amounts of painkillers to a White House military officer.

Co-workers said that during an overseas trip in 2015 with President Barack Obama, Dr. Jackson got drunk and banged on the hotel room door of a female employee.

A 2012 report watchdog report found that Dr. Jackson and a rival physician engaged in “unprofessional behaviors” as they struggled over control of the White House medical unit.

The report by the Navy’s medical inspector general found a lack of trust in the leadership and low morale among staff members, who described the working environment as “being caught between parents going through a bitter divorce.”

The report also pinned blame on Dr. Jackson’s rival, Dr. Jeffrey Kuhlman.

None of the roughly 20 accusations against Dr. Jackson raised red flags on four background checks he underwent for his White House post, Mrs. Sanders said.

In the call-in to the Fox News show, Mr. Trump said Dr. Jackson “would’ve done a great job” at the VA.

He criticized Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the top Democrat on the committee, for spreading gossip such as the “candy man” accusation.

“There is no proof of this. And he has a perfect record,” the president said.

He also said Mr. Tester would have to answer to voters for his treatment of the admiral.

“I think this is going to cause him a lot of problems in his state,” said Mr. Trump, noting that he carried Montana with 56 percent of the vote in the 2016 presidential election. “He’s going to have a price to pay in Montana.”

Mr. Tester is seeking a third term in November and was already considered vulnerable to a Republican challenger in the conservative state.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican and chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said he respected Dr. Jackson’s decision and thanked the admiral for his service to the country.

“I will work with the administration to see to it we get a VA secretary for our veterans and their families,” Mr. Isakson said.

Sally Persons contributed to this article.

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