The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

VA nominee considers withdrawing as new allegations emerge of drinking, wrecking government vehicle

The Fix’s Amber Phillips takes a look at the hurdles facing Ronny L. Jackson, President Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

White House physician Ronny L. Jackson has grown frustrated with the nomination process to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs and has told colleagues he may remove his name from consideration, according to two White House officials with knowledge of his deliberations.

Jackson’s indecision was brewing even before Capitol Hill Democrats on Wednesday released new allegations of professional misconduct, including the claim that Jackson 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 with “a constant fear of reprisal.”

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)

One White House official said Jackson is growing weary of a process that has been besieged from the start. Veteran advocates and many lawmakers have expressed concerns about the former combat physician’s lack of management experience, and some have worried that he would capitulate to President Trump’s goal of outsourcing more veteran services.

On Wednesday, Jackson quickly denied crashing a vehicle. In private, he alternated between contemplating an end to his bid and striking a pugnacious tone, according to several White House officials, telling colleagues he hopes to defend himself even if he can’t win confirmation.

The Democrats’ document provided no evidence for the allegations, nor an explanation of the methodology of the investigation, which has been spearheaded by the office of Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). According to Tester’s staff, every allegation has been substantiated by at least two people.

The memo does not provide specifics on when some of the alleged incidents occurred. It also presents a stark contrast to the stellar portrait offered by Jackson’s defenders, who have described previous allegations as a smear job.

“Am I 100 percent rock-solid sure that he did this? No,” Tester said on MSNBC. “But I’ve seen a pattern here that continues on and on and on and I think it’s important that members of the committee see what I’m seeing.”

As for Jackson’s denial that he crashed a vehicle, Tester said, “if he were to admit to that, he’d be done as secretary of the VA.”

The White House did not immediately comment on the latest allegations, but earlier Wednesday officials had intensified their defense of Jackson, arguing that his record as a personal physician to the past three presidents was sterling and demanding that he be given an opportunity to personally attest to his character and job performance before the Senate.

“Dr. Jackson’s record as a White House physician has been impeccable,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Wednesday. “In fact, because Dr. Jackson has worked within arms’ length of three presidents, he has received more vetting than most nominees.”

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 Obama home from an overseas trip, according to one former White House official who witnessed Jackson’s behavior.

The committee interviews, most of them with uniformed members of the military, “have raised serious concerns about Jackson’s temperament and ethics,” the document states, “and cast doubt on his ability to lead the second largest agency in government and one tasked with the sacred mission of fulfilling our commitment to the men and women who have served our nation in uniform and their families.”

Whether Jackson’s nomination will survive the latest round of controversy was unknown; by the end of the day only one lawmaker, Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota, the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, had called on Jackson to withdraw.

Few other officials immediately came to Jackon’s defense, but there also wasn’t a broader clamor for him to withdraw. Republicans had already expressed concern about his lack of management experience, and the new accusations left some GOP senators even more circumspect.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said there was some “uncertainty” that Jackson has the needed support to be confirmed, noting “we only have 50 Republican votes present, and so I don’t know yet how this is going to unfold.”

As for support for Jackson among Republicans, “I think people are reserving judgment until the committee does its work,” Cornyn said.

Trump has not signaled that he wants his nominee to drop out, according to a senior administration official. That official, and another former senior administration official, said they had seen Jackson more than 100 times in the White House. “He has never seemed drunk, never seemed like he wasn’t anything but ready to do his job,” the former official said.

The current official said the White House plans to have current and former colleagues support Jackson in upcoming days and wants to document some of his heroic work as a military doctor. The official said, however, that Jackson was growing weary of the accusations. “His tolerance is not indefinite.”

‘He knows how to read a room really, really well:’ How Ronny Jackson became Trump’s pick for VA

“He is telling us these things are just not true,” the first official said. “Why hasn’t all this come out before? Why is this coming out now?”

The official added: “I’m going to believe him until there is some proof. I have always known him to be a good man.”

But the allegations could be more damaging in Trump’s eyes because the president is famously opposed to drinking, both of these men said.

The document listed some allegations that have already been reported, such as Jackson’s nickname, “Candyman,” a reference to his alleged habit of doling out meds to staff and members of the press, particularly on White House trips.

The document provided no evidence for one of its claims, that Jackson curried favor with White House officials by improperly enrolling them in Tricare, the coveted military health plan, or that he falsified prescriptions to cover how much he was prescribing and to whom.

The summary noted multiple investigations into Jackson’s behavior, including one by the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General. However, The Post found that the inspector general’s office declined to open an investigation because the information was not conclusive, according to an individual with knowledge of the process who was not authorized to speak publicly.

The Post was unable to confirm the report’s description that Jackson was once “passed out drunk in his hotel room” when a White House official needed medical attention. One individual told The Post about a similar scenario, in which Jackson was unresponsive to loud knocking on the door by Secret Service and medical staff trying to find him. It turned out that Jackson was sleeping inside, but this individual did not know if he had been drinking.

What comes through clearly in the interviews is the level of animus that Jackson has attracted from current and past colleagues. Not clear, however, is how many of the 23 interview subjects contributed to that portrait.

According to the document: “Jackson was described as ‘the most unethical person I have ever worked with,’ ‘flat-out unethical,’ ‘explosive,’ ‘100 percent bad temper,’ ‘toxic,’ ‘abusive,’ ‘volatile,’ ‘incapable of not losing his temper,’ ‘the worst officer I have ever served with,’ ‘despicable,’ ‘dishonest,’ as having ‘screaming tantrums’ and “screaming fits,’ as someone who would ‘lose his mind over small things,’ ‘vindictive,’ ‘belittling,’ ‘the worse [sic] leader I’ve ever worked for.’”

It continued: “As Jackson gained power he became ‘intolerable.’ One physician said, ‘I have no faith in government that someone like Jackson could be end up [sic] at VA.’ A nurse stated, ‘this [working at WHMU] should have been the highlight of my military career but it was my worst assignment.’ Another stated that working at WHMU was the ‘worst experience of my life.’ ”

Jackson, 50, a Navy rear admiral who served in Iraq, has been under fire for days amid questions about his qualifications to lead VA and allegations of his management practices at the White House Medical Unit. Late Monday, Jackson’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee was postponed, two days before it was scheduled to occur. Trump told Jackson on Tuesday that he should fight for the nomination, according to people familiar with the discussion, but earlier that day he had suggested that perhaps the doctor should withdraw.

In addition to Jackson’s lack of management experience, he had come under fire for his glowing appraisal of Trump’s health following his annual physical in January. Jackson said then that the president might live to the age of 200 with a healthier diet.

Alice Crites, Josh Dawsey, Carol Leonnig, Lisa Rein, Philip Rucker, Emily Wax-Thibodeaux and Erica Werner contributed to this report.