Ronny Jackson, President Donald Trump’s nominee for Veterans Affairs secretary, announced Thursday he was stepping aside amid new allegations of abusing alcohol and handing out prescription drugs.
Jackson’s withdrawal comes two days after Trump publicly advised him to bow out and just hours after a report surfaced, citing Senate Democrats’ summary of allegations against him, that he once got intoxicated and crashed a government automobile.
That Democratic document also alleges Jackson prescribed himself drugs and asked a physician’s assistant to supply the drugs when he got caught.
In a statement, Jackson denied the allegations.
“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,” he said.
But he said he decided to withdraw the nomination because the allegations had become a distraction for the president.
“The allegations against me are completely false and fabricated. 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.
Trump told “Fox & Friends” on Thursday he had an idea who should run the department but demurred when asked who it could be.
“I do, but I better not give it,” he said. “I think we’re going to have somebody great ... someone with political capability, yeah.”
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson praised Jackson amidst his withdrawal.
“I respect his decision, and I thank Admiral 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,” the Georgia Republican said.
The nomination was questioned by Democratic senators from the start because Jackson, a Navy rear admiral, has no command or major management experience.
Trump acknowledged that point on Tuesday. When asked about other allegations of drinking on the job and creating a hostile office, the president said of Jackson that he would “always stand behind him.”
But he also appeared to give Jackson an out. “If I were him ... the fact is I wouldn’t do it,” Trump said. “What does he need it for? To be abused by a bunch of politicians who ... aren’t thinking about the country?”
Trump told “Fox & Friends” he advised Jackson to step aside “a day or two ago” because “I saw where this was going.”
“I think Jon Tester has to have a big price to pay in Montana,” Trump said. “The admiral is the kind of person that they like and admire.”
“I love them and they love me,” he said of voters in Montana. “I think this is going to cause him a lot of problems in his state. He took a man who was just an incredible man, respected by President [Barack] Obama … President [George W.] Bush.”
In a statement, Tester praised the people who made the allegations against Jackson in his memo.
“I want to thank the servicemembers who bravely spoke out over the past week,” the Montana senator said in a statement on Thursday. “It is my Constitutional responsibility to make sure the veterans of this nation get a strong, thoroughly vetted leader who will fight for them.”
Trump said there was “no proof” the allegations against Jackson were true and that Jackson had an “unblemished” military record and a “fantastic operation” in the White House medical unit.
Senior Senate Democrats like Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York in recent days have panned the White House for what they call a faulty personnel vetting process. They say the allegations against Jackson are among the best examples to support their view.
Jackson’s bowing out means Trump and his team must find a new VA nominee and will push that Senate vetting and confirmation process back weeks on a legislative calendar that is truncated due to both parties’ need to campaign for November’s midterm elections.
Moving another Cabinet nominee through a confirmation process that has plodded during Trump’s tenure — to the White House’s chagrin — will get tougher as the heart of campaign season nears.
The White House tried to mount a defense of Jackson on Monday evening and through Tuesday.
Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders used her Tuesday afternoon briefing to note that multiple background checks on Jackson since he became a White House physician turned up no red flags.
And on Tuesday evening, a senior White House official provided a statement defending the nominee and pointing to praise from Obama of Jackson that included the 44th president’s recommendation that Jackson be promoted quickly ahead of his peers.
Eric Garcia and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.
Watch: Trump Stands Behind VA Pick but Says, ‘I Wouldn’t Do It’