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Ronny Jackson withdraws as Trump’s nominee to lead Veterans Affairs

White House doctor Ronny L. Jackson withdrew from the nomination to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, the White House said on April 26. (Video: Reuters)
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Ronny L. Jackson, President Trump’s embattled nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, withdrew from consideration Thursday amid mushrooming allegations of professional misconduct that raised questions about the White House vetting process.

“The allegations against me are completely false and fabricated,” Jackson, the White House physician, said in a defiant statement. “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’s nomination had become imperiled even before Capitol Hill Democrats on Wednesday released new allegations of misconduct. The claims include that he had wrecked a government vehicle after getting drunk at a Secret Service going-away party.

The allegations were contained in a two-page document described by the Democratic staff of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee as a summary of interviews with 23 of Jackson’s current and former colleagues. The document also described Jackson’s “pattern” of handing out medication with no patient history, writing himself prescriptions and contributing to a hostile work environment where there was “a constant fear of reprisal.”

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Jackson, 50, has consistently denied wrongdoing. He told colleagues Wednesday night that he had grown frustrated with the nomination process, according to two White House officials with knowledge of his deliberations. He was a surprise nominee to succeed David Shulkin, an Obama-era holdover once lauded by Trump, who was fired March 28.

During a television interview just minutes after Jackson’s statement, Trump said he had another candidate to lead Veterans Affairs in mind but would not provide a name. He noted, however, that the possible nominee has more political experience than Jackson.

President Trump’s nominee to be the next veterans affairs secretary, Ronny Jackson, was on Capitol Hill April 24 as senators questioned his vetting. (Video: Jordan Frasier/The Washington Post)

Trump also accused Democrats of derailing the nomination of “an incredible man.”

“These are all false accusations,” he said while calling into “Fox & Friends” on Fox News. “They’re trying to destroy a man. ... There’s no proof of this. He’s got a beautiful record.”

Trump singled out Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, as unfairly maligning Jackson and said voters in Montana should make him pay a price.

Trump also suggested that his opponents were eager to take down Jackson because another of his nominees, Mike Pompeo, was on track to survive a difficult nomination process for secretary of state.

Trump continued to defend Jackson later Thursday, telling reporters during an appearance in the Rose Garden that he was treated “very, very unfairly.”

The Washington Post has independently been told stories of misconduct by Jackson similar to those reported by Tester’s staff, including descriptions that he drank while on duty.

Two former White House officials told The Post of instances when Jackson drank while traveling with the president — a violation of the White House Medical Unit’s policy. On one such occasion, Jackson was preparing to board Air Force One to accompany then-President Barack Obama home from an overseas trip, according to one former White House official who purportedly witnessed Jackson’s behavior.

White House officials suggested that Jackson might remain in his current post despite the allegations about workplace misconduct.

“Admiral 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.

On Twitter, Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and a White House adviser, called Jackson “a man of exceptional integrity, character and intellect” and said she looks forward “to continuing to see his warm smile each day at the White House!”

Jackson planned to retire from the Navy to take the VA job. Trump has put him up for a promotion from one-star to two-star admiral. That nomination remains pending with the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Jackson becomes the latest candidate Trump has put forward to run a major agency only to topple during the confirmation process. His prior nominees for labor secretary, Army secretary and Navy secretary all withdrew last year after questions arose during their vetting process.

Jackson’s nomination to lead the federal government’s second-largest agency was contentious from the start. White House officials, members of both political parties and veterans advocates all questioned the president’s decision, which was announced via Twitter on March 28.

Veteran advocates and many lawmakers expressed concerns about Jackson’s lack of management experience, and some have worried that he would capitulate to Trump’s goal of outsourcing more veteran services.

The move coincided with Trump’s removal of Shulkin as VA secretary. The Cabinet’s only Obama-era holdover, Shulkin clashed with those in the administration who have sought an aggressive expansion of VA’s Choice program, which allows veterans to seek health care from private providers at taxpayer expense. Those opposed to that plan fear it will undermine efforts to address the many challenges VA faces.

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Jackson, a one-star Navy admiral whose tenure at the White House spans three administrations, has been criticized as too inexperienced to take on the monumental task of leading an organization comprising more than 360,000 employees. Apart from overseeing the White House medical staff, Jackson had led a military trauma unit in Iraq, tending to troops who had suffered catastrophic wounds during one of the war’s most violent stretches.

He rose to prominence in January, after delivering a fawning assessment of Trump’s health. The president is said to have been captivated by his doctor’s appearance in the White House briefing room, where, following Trump’s physical, Jackson extolled Trump’s fitness and cognitive acuity.

“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.”

Late last week, aides to Tester 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 also the committee’s chairman, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who agreed to postpone Jackson’s confirmation hearing while lawmakers investigated the allegations.

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 over the past week,” 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.”

In another statement, Isakson thanked Jackson 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,” Isakson said.

Democrats said Thursday that the allegations against Jackson reflected a lack of proper vetting by the White House.

“To nominate Ronny Jackson without thoroughly vetting him and ensuring he’d be an experienced and qualified VA Secretary was an insult to our veterans,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) wrote on Twitter. “They deserve an administration that honors their service with a nominee capable of leading the VA.”

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The White House, which was criticized for failing to adequately vet Jackson’s nomination, defended him until the end, saying that his record as a physician serving three presidents was unassailable and demanding that he be allowed to defend himself during a confirmation hearing. But by Wednesday night, senators in both parties doubted he could survive politically.

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.

Trump made no mention of Jackson’s withdrawal Thursday morning at a previously scheduled event with wounded military veterans. Trump touted reforms underway at the Department of Veterans Affairs and recognized Wilkie, who the president said “is doing a great job over at the VA.”

The event in the East Room of the White House honored the Wounded Warrior Project Soldier Ride, a cycling program that accommodates wounded veterans of varying degrees in their journey.

Wilkie, who has been acting secretary for a month, is considered a possible candidate for the full-time job because he has been previously confirmed by the Senate for another role, is a veteran and has on-the-job training.

“With the failure of Ronny Jackson it’s going to be a whole different world with vetting,” said Darin Selnick, who recently left the White House after a stint as veterans liaison to VA. “They are going to have to rethink who and how they vet.”

Having previously cleared vetting, Wilkie would be a good candidate if he wants the job, Selnick said.

A group of Trump’s friends who have taken a keen interest in VA issues had assembled a group of candidates when Shulkin was ousted, most of whom were doctors and whose candidacies might be rethought in light of Jackson’s fate, according to people familiar with the process.

One name that circulated Thursday was Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a military veteran. But she said she has not been approached by the Trump administration and is not seeking the job. Republican leadership would also probably balk at opening another seat in a difficult election year.

Addressing reporters Thursday, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) suggested two possible choices for the next VA secretary: Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and former congressman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), a past chairman of the committee.

A leading veterans group said Thursday morning that it was happy to see the end of a “painful and tumultuous chapter” for Veterans Affairs.

“But the volatile, damaging saga continues,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “We now face the prospect of a stunning eighth nominee for VA Secretary since 9/11. Our community is exhausted by the unnecessary and seemingly never-ending drama.”

Philip Rucker, Amy Gardner, Seung Min Kim and Emily Wax-Thibodeaux contributed to this report.