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Ronny Jackson withdraws from nomination as VA Secretary

Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson on April 16, 2018.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 26, 2018

WASHINGTON — Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson withdrew from consideration as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs early Thursday morning and denied allegations raised against him during the past two days of drinking on the job and doling out controlled substances.

“Going into this process, I expected tough questions about how to best care for our veterans, but I did not expect to have to dignify baseless and anonymous attacks on my character and integrity,” Jackson, a White House physician, said Thursday in a statement.

The decision came after details emerged late Wednesday of allegations made by 23 of Jackson’s current and former coworkers in the White House Medical Unit. They described him as an unstable leader who drank on duty and handed out prescription medication, including opioids, without keeping records of it.

The allegations, which have yet to be substantiated, were compiled in a summary provided to reporters Wednesday by Democrats on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

“The allegations against me are completely false and fabricated,” Jackson said. “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.”

Minutes after Jackson withdrew, President Donald Trump defended him in an interview with Fox & Friends and blamed Democrats for Jackson’s failed nomination, describing them as “obstructionists.”

Trump specifically went after Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Trump said Tester has a “big price to pay in Montana.” Tester is up for re-election in November.

“They’re trying to destroy a man,” Trump said. “These are false allegations.”

Tester said Thursday in a statement that it was his constitutional responsibility to “make sure the veterans of this nation get a strong, thoroughly vetted leader.”

Jackson’s nomination became imperiled Tuesday, when Tester and Sen. Johnny Isakson, the Republican chairman of the Senate committee, decided together to postpone his confirmation hearing because of the new allegations.

“The next secretary must have a commitment to reform a strained health care system and a willingness to stand up to special interests who want to privatize the VA,” Tester said. “My sleeves are rolled up and ready to work with Chairman Isakson to vet and confirm a secretary who is fit to run the VA.”

Trump told Fox & Friends that he had a new nominee in mind. He declined to name the individual, but said the potential nominee is “somebody great” with “political capability.”

Before the allegations against Jackson emerged, lawmakers and veterans groups already had concerns Jackson lacked the experience necessary for the job. The VA is the second-largest federal agency, with more than 375,000 employees, and operates on a nearly $200 billion budget.

Jackson has been part of the White House Medical Unit since 2006 and has worked as physician to the president since 2013, serving under Trump and former President Barack Obama.

Coworkers described to senators multiple occasions that Jackson was drunk while on call — when he was expected to report to duty in the instance that the president had a health issue. At least once, Jackson couldn’t be reached because he was “passed out drunk in his hotel room,” the coworkers alleged. They told senators that Jackson got drunk at a Secret Service going-away party and wrecked a government vehicle.

Multiple coworkers said White House staff nicknamed him “Candyman” because he would hand out “whatever prescriptions they sought” without paperwork. They portrayed him a “vindictive” leader and “intolerable” as he gained power within the White House Medical Unit.

The White House supported Jackson during the past few days, and in an attempt to vindicate him, officials released multiple positive evaluations Obama wrote about Jackson.

Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders said Wednesday that Jackson went through thorough FBI vetting and three prior investigations, none of which turned up any areas of concern.

Trump told Fox & Friends that there was “no proof” of the allegations.

“He has a perfect record, this beautiful record,” he said.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, or IAVA, responded to the news of Jackson’s withdrawal Thursday, describing the ordeal as a “painful and tumultuous chapter for VA and our nation’s veterans.”

“It's been an unprecedented time of chaos, political agendas and uncertainty. And millions of veterans and their families have paid the price,” IAVA wrote in a statement. “Our community is exhausted by the unnecessary and seemingly never-ending drama. VA's reputation is damaged, staff is demoralized, momentum is stalled and the future is shockingly unclear.”

wentling.nikki@stripes.com

Twitter: @nikkiwentling
 

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