President Trump's slapdash nomination of White House physician Ronny L. Jackson to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs is a reminder of the press's watchdog role. The White House's vetting of Jackson was so inadequate that on Monday the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs postponed the Navy admiral's confirmation hearing, a development that justifiably intensified media scrutiny of a man who ought to have gotten a closer look internally.
“I haven't heard of the particular allegations,” Trump said Tuesday at a joint news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron.
In Trump's professed lack of awareness lies the problem: He should have known about accusations of professional misconduct, which date to Jackson's time as President Barack Obama's White House physician, before they reached lawmakers or the media. Now, journalists are applying the rigor that the White House did not.
Yet the Jackson debacle is also a potential trap for the media — another opportunity for Trump to deflect attention from his administration's sloppiness and onto the persistently critical coverage of his decisions. However warranted the criticism might be, Trump can suggest that it must be unfair simply because it is constant.
“This is a vicious group of people that malign — and they do,” Trump said at the news conference with Macron. “And I've lived through it; we all lived through it. You people are getting record ratings because of it,” he added, gesturing to reporters, “so, congratulations.”
The president also complained about lawmakers and added that he encouraged Jackson to reconsider enduring the “ugly” and “disgusting” confirmation process. The two huddled later in the day and decided to forge on.
In his remarks at the news conference, Trump showed his knack for reframing a situation. The real issue, according to him, is not Jackson's conduct or the White House's failure to get to the bottom of it; the real issue is how reporters and politicians “malign” Trump officials.
There is, of course, a genuine risk of overreaching in coverage of Jackson. The ranking Democrat on the Veterans' Affairs Committee, Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.), has claimed on TV that Jackson was known as the “candy man” inside the White House — a nickname that, if reported without additional sourcing and context, could imply that Jackson stands accused of passing out opioids, which he does not.
The need for caution and clarity was apparent Wednesday on MSNBC's “Morning Joe,” when Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) explained the concerns she had about Jackson's nomination, even before this week.
“The VA health system has had problems in the past,” Baldwin said. “They have problems that need to be overseen now and worked through, and I feared that Dr. Jackson didn't have the type of managerial experience needed to oversee such an important but also large entity. And, so, when I look at the problems we've seen with the waiting-list scandal, with overprescription of narcotics, with a variety of issues, we need somebody who is going to lean forward.”
Attentive viewers would have noted that Baldwin included “overprescription of narcotics” on a list of problems with the VA health system, not a list of accusations against Jackson. But there was potential for confusion. MSNBC's Kasie Hunt wisely sought a clarification.
“Senator,” Hunt said to Baldwin, “I just want to follow up on one thing you mentioned: So far, to our knowledge, Ronny Jackson has not been accused of overprescribing narcotics. It's been sleep aids and wakefulness medicines. I just want to make sure you don't have information we don't have, on that point.”
“I do not,” Baldwin replied.
Some early reporting on allegations against Jackson referred vaguely to suspected drinking on the job, a charge that could suggest he was intoxicated at the White House. Tester specified to the New York Times on Tuesday that his committee has no evidence of that but rather has received complaints about Jackson's consumption on overseas trips.
Such complaints are still troubling; Tester contended that the White House doctor is never truly off the clock because “you don't know when [the president] is going to need you.”
Yet, as the White House stands by Jackson, any ambiguity or innuendo — and certainly any errors — in media coverage can, and probably will, be used to claim that the “great doctor” (Trump's words) is the victim of a smear campaign.