Allegations of misconduct against Rear Adm. Ronny L. Jackson, President Trump’s former nominee to run the Department of Veterans Affairs, threatened Thursday to derail his military career and promotion to two-star admiral, even after Jackson withdrew his name from consideration for the Cabinet post.
Jackson, the White House’s top physician, removed himself from consideration for the position Thursday morning, calling the allegations “completely false and fabricated.” He has been accused of dispensing prescription medication too freely, including a store of the opioid Percocet that put the White House military officials “into a panic” when it went missing, according to a list of allegations released Wednesday by Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.).
Tester, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, also relayed allegations that there were “multiple incidents of drunkenness on duty,” including one in which Jackson could not be reached in his hotel room when needed and at a Secret Service going-away party in which Jackson “got drunk and wrecked a government vehicle.”
The allegations “must be reviewed and addressed by the Department of Defense” before the Senate Armed Services Committee can consider his promotion nomination, said Chip Uhruh, a spokesman for Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), the committee’s ranking Democrat. Trump nominated Jackson in March for advancement to two-star admiral, before unexpectedly also nominating him a few weeks later to replace David Shulkin, who was ousted as VA secretary.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Thursday that the committee will want answers, and an inspector general investigation should be launched.
“Certainly in considering his possible promotion, we need to know the facts addressing these profoundly serious allegations,” Blumenthal said. “And that’s why the inspector general report is necessary.”
He added: “I’ve spoken to colleagues on the Armed Services Committee on both sides of the aisle, and they feel some investigative work is necessary before any real consideration.”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) also suggested to reporters that it would be “smart” to have an inspector general review the case.
“We should find out if there’s merit to these allegations, and, if there are, then … the proper oversight should be done,” Ryan said.
A Pentagon official, Army Col. Rob Manning, said Thursday afternoon that he was not aware of any current intent by the Defense Department inspector general to launch an investigation.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), a member of both the Senate’s veterans’ affairs and armed services committees, suggested a different approach more favorable to Jackson, saying his promotion to two-star admiral and his scuttled nomination to be VA secretary should be handled separately.
Jackson withdrawing from consideration for VA post ended a political crisis for the White House, but left several questions unanswered. Among them: If the allegations are all true, why did they not emerge sooner? And with all the reports, will anyone in the Pentagon pursue an investigation to either substantiate the accusations or clear Jackson’s name?
Tester said the allegations were compiled in conversations with 23 colleagues and former colleagues, most of whom are still in the military. They raised doubts about his fitness to lead and his personal ethics.
None of the most egregious allegations have been substantiated, and Trump and other senior White House officials have indicated that they stand behind Jackson and plan to keep him at the White House. Some of the allegations date to Jackson’s time serving the Obama administration, a point that the White House has frostily noted.
But the U.S. military has a long track record of malfeasance by senior officers festering outside of public view, only to erupt at some point in embarrassing fashion. The allegations released by Tester suggest that colleagues had previously raised some concerns with the Navy surgeon general’s office, the White House Military Office and the Defense Department inspector general.
For days, the Pentagon has been silent about the allegations against Jackson, saying it would be inappropriate to comment while his Cabinet nomination was pending with the Senate. It no longer is, but defense officials on Thursday either declined to comment or said they were reviewing what they could say.
Several entities could potentially investigate Jackson. The most likely is the Defense Department inspector general, given the high-profile nature of Jackson’s case. Each branch of service has its own inspector general, but cases involving senior officers typically fall to the Pentagon’s top watchdog, which operates independently from the department.
The Navy itself also has an inspector general, and the Navy’s surgeon general, Vice Adm. C. Forrest Faison III, has an interest in the case as the chief of the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. The medical bureau’s inspector general issued a 2012 review of the climate of the White House Medical Unit that raised issues about the leadership of both Jackson and his predecessor, retired Navy Capt. Jeffrey Kuhlman. It recommended that one or both officers be removed. In a follow-up 2013 assessment, it found markedly improved morale under Jackson’s command.
Service members with substantiated allegations against them can receive counseling from a more-senior officer, a formal letter of reprimand or can be forced to retire at their current rank. If the conclusions of an investigation are serious, the military also in rare cases can demote officers as it forces them out of the military. That comes through a process known as grade determination, in which the military determines the last rank at which a person served satisfactorily.
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.
This post has been updated.