Trump's controversial pick for Veteran Affairs chief withdraws from consideration

White House physician, Admiral Ronny Jackson, at a press briefing at the White House on Jan 16, 2018.
White House physician, Admiral Ronny Jackson, at a press briefing at the White House on Jan 16, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - Admiral Ronny Jackson, President Donald Trump's embattled nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, withdrew from consideration on Thursday (April 26) amid mushrooming allegations of professional misconduct that raised questions about the White House vetting process.

"The allegations against me are completely false and fabricated," Adm Jackson said in a 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."

Adm Jackson's nomination had become imperilled even before Capitol Hill Democrats on Wednesday released new allegations of professional misconduct. They include claims that Adm Jackson, the White House physician, 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 Adm Jackson's current and former colleagues.

The document also described Adm 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".

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

Adm Jackson, 50, has denied wrongdoing. He told colleagues on 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 Mr David Shulkin, an Obama-era holdover once lauded by Mr Trump, who was fired on March 28.

Adm Jackson becomes the latest candidate President Trump has put forward to run a major agency only to topple during the confirmation process.

His prior nominees for labour secretary, army secretary and navy secretary all withdrew last year after questions arose during their vetting process.

Adm 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.

The move coincided with Mr Trump's removal of Mr Shulkin as VA secretary.

The Cabinet's only Obama-era holdover, Mr Shulkin clashed with those in the administration who have sought an aggressive expansion of VA's Choice programme, which allows veterans to seek healthcare from private providers at taxpayer expense.

Those opposed to that plan fear it will undermine efforts to address the many challenges VA faces.

Adm Jackson, a one-star navy admiral whose tenure at the White House spans three administrations, has been criticised as too inexperienced to take on the monumental task of leading an organisation comprising more than 360,000 employees.

Apart from overseeing the White House medical staff, Adm Jackson 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 Mr Trump's health. The President is said to have been captivated by his doctor's appearance in the White House briefing room, where, following Mr Trump's physical, Adm Jackson extolled Mr Trump's fitness and cognitive acuity.

Late last week, aides to Senator Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, the committee's ranking Democrat, received damaging information about Adm 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 Mr Tester but the committee's chairman, Senator Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, who agreed to postpone Adm Jackson's confirmation hearing while lawmakers investigated the allegations.

The report released by committee Democrats suggested Adm Jackson demonstrated a "pattern" of handing out medication with no patient history, writing prescriptions for himself and contributing to a hostile work environment where there was a "constant fear of reprisal".

The document also says he "wrecked a government vehicle" after getting drunk at a Secret Service party.

The White House, which was criticised for failing to adequately vet Adm 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 political parties doubted he could survive politically.

Since 2001, when the US went to war in Afghanistan, VA has had seven secretaries. It's acting head is Mr Robert Wilkie, who was moved into the role from another appointed position at the Defence Department.

Veterans advocacy groups said this week that politics have precluded the agency from effectively addressing the many challenges it faces as healthcare needs grow for Vietnam-era veterans and those who have served since 9/11.

"This is complete and total chaos after years of complete and total chaos," said Mr Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy group. "Our veterans deserve so much better. Our whole country does."

Adm Jackson planned to retire from the navy to take VA job. Mr 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.

A leading veterans group said on 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 Mr Rieckhoff. "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."