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Ronny Jackson withdraws as Trump’s nominee to lead Veterans Affairs, but he remains under scrutiny

President Trump looks to White House physician Ronny Jackson during a Veterans Affairs Department “telehealth” event in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in August 2017.
President Trump looks to White House physician Ronny Jackson during a Veterans Affairs Department “telehealth” event in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in August 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Ronny L. Jackson’s withdrawal from consideration to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs stanched an immediate political crisis for the Trump White House, but it sparked new questions over his future as the president’s doctor and the fate of the embattled agency.

Jackson announced Thursday morning that he was pulling out of the nomination process amid a mushrooming cloud of allegations over professional misconduct, leaving in limbo a sprawling federal bureaucracy serving 9 million military veterans that President Trump has called a top domestic priority.

Yet even as Jackson strongly denied the charges against him, calling them “completely false and fabricated” in a defiant statement, his position as Trump’s chief physician and a pending Navy promotion looked shaky. Congressional Democrats said the admiral’s nomination for a second star would not be considered until the Pentagon addresses allegations that he drank excessively on the job and oversaw a hostile working environment in the White House medical office, which he has led since 2013.

“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,” Jackson said of the charges.

The dramatic collapse of Jackson’s nomination to lead VA, the second-largest government agency behind the Pentagon, with 360,000 employees and a $186 billion budget, came after rapidly mounting questions over his qualifications and conduct. And it left the White House reeling to defend the nomination, which Trump made in surprise fashion after forcing out David Shulkin, a holdover from President Barack Obama’s administration, in March.

Although Jackson, 50, enjoyed significant support among Obama’s former aides, the onetime military trauma surgeon lacked management experience. Democrats demanded to know why Jackson, who offered a glowing public endorsement of Trump’s fitness at a January White House press briefing, had risen so quickly despite the outpouring of anonymously sourced accusations against him during the confirmation process.

Late Wednesday, the Democratic staff of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee released a list of allegations, which included a claim that Jackson was intoxicated and crashed a government vehicle after a Secret Service goodbye party — a charge Jackson flatly denied. The office — which reports to the panel’s top Democrat, Jon Tester of Montana — said the list of allegations was based on interviews with 23 of Jackson’s former and current colleagues, but it provided no specific evidence to substantiate the claims.

There were growing bipartisan calls Thursday for additional investigations into Jackson’s professional history. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which reviews military promotions, said Thursday that the committee will want answers.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told 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,” he said.

At the White House, Trump continued to defend Jackson, and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the doctor remains on the job as the head of the White House medical unit. Although Trump signaled Wednesday that he thought Jackson should withdraw from consideration to lead VA, he lambasted the “false accusations” against him during a phone interview with the hosts of “Fox & Friends” on Fox News on Thursday morning.

“They’re trying to destroy a man,” Trump said. “There’s no proof of this. He’s got a beautiful record.”

The president said that Democrats were eager to take down Jackson because another nominee, Mike Pompeo, was on track to survive a difficult nomination process for secretary of state. Pompeo was later confirmed by the Senate and sworn into office.

Trump said in the interview that he has a replacement candidate in mind, but as of Thursday there were no clear front-runners to lead an agency that operates a far-flung health, benefits and cemetery system. Since 2001, when the United States went to war in Afghanistan, VA has had seven secretaries. Its acting head is Robert Wilkie, who was moved into the role from another appointed position at the Defense Department.

According to administration officials, Jackson huddled with senior staffers in Sanders’s West Wing office Wednesday night, drafting his withdrawal statement. Yet he remained adamant that he had done nothing wrong and wavered over whether to leave the confirmation process.

On Twitter, Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and a senior White House adviser, called Jackson a “man of exceptional integrity, character and intellect.”

Late last week, Tester aides received damaging information about Jackson’s management of the White House medical office. They began interviewing his colleagues, many of them active-duty military officers, whose assessment of the admiral alarmed not only Tester but the committee’s chairman, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who agreed to postpone Jackson’s confirmation hearing.

Tester defended the release of the allegations in a statement Thursday that did not directly reference Trump’s criticism.

“I want to thank the servicemembers who bravely spoke out,” Tester said. “It is my Constitutional responsibility to make sure the veterans of this nation get a strong, thoroughly vetted leader who will fight for them.”

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.

Several entities could potentially investigate Jackson, including the Defense Department inspector general. The Navy has a separate inspector general, and the Navy’s surgeon general, Vice Adm. C. Forrest Faison III, also could have a stake in the case as the chief of the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.

Defense officials on Thursday declined to comment.

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 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.

“In my role as a doctor, I have tirelessly worked to provide excellent care for all my patients,” Jackson said in his statement Thursday. “In doing so, I have always adhered to the highest ethical standards. 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.”

Trump made no mention of Jackson’s withdrawal Thursday morning at a previously scheduled event with wounded military veterans. Trump touted reforms underway at VA and recognized Wilkie for “doing a great job.”

Josh Dawsey, Seung Min Kim, Ashley Parker, John Wagner and Emily Wax-Thibodeaux contributed to this report.