The White House is trying to salvage Ronny Jackson’s nomination for Veterans’ Affairs secretary by citing former President Barack Obama, even after President Donald Trump publicly advised him to step aside.
Hours after Trump told reporters he would not continue as the nominee if he were in the White House physician’s shoes, a senior official shared information touting Jackson’s record. The information included praise from Obama, including the 44th president’s recommendation that Jackson, a Navy officer, be promoted ahead of his peers.
The senior White House official’s message with the pro-Jackson information came about four hours after Trump opened the door to the nomination being withdrawn. The gap created the perception that the president and White House were no longer fully behind the Navy rear admiral, who also was Obama’s White House doctor while he was commander in chief.
Trump said Tuesday he would prefer not “to put a man through a process like this — it’s too ugly and disgusting.” Jackson is facing allegations of drinking while on the clock and fostering a hostile work environment. But the president did not stop there in appearing to pour cold water on his own nominee, also acknowledging he knows there is an “an experience problem” because Jackson has never held a major command or management post but is up to manage the troubled and sprawling VA.
Watch: Trump Stands Behind VA Pick, But Says ‘I Wouldn’t Do It’
The senior White House official’s message took on both allegations.
During the span between Trump appearing to signal he would prefer to find a new VA nominee and the start of the White House’s attempts to punch out of the corner, a 2012 inspector general report surfaced that, in part, recommended removing Jackson and another Navy officer from the White House Medical Unit.
That 2012 “command climate assessment” was requested by Jackson, the senior official said, noting it did blame him and then-Capt. Jeffrey Kuhlman with creating a poor working climate. The official’s note states Jackson was soon after that report “promoted to physician to the President and has remained in that role since.” The White House also pointed to a portion of the IG report that stated “the vast majority of the WHMU staff members believe that [Capt.] Kuhlman has irrevocably damaged his ability to effectively lead and serve.”
“Many also believe that [Capt.] Jackson has exhibited poor climate and leadership failures, but most feel that [Capt.] Jackson’s failures were primarily due to the destructive rapport with [Capt.] Kuhlman and that he has not had an opportunity to lead the WHMU without hindrance or support,” the IG found.
The senior White House official also pointed to 2014, 2015 and 2016 personnel assessments of Jackson that included notes penned by Obama. Two of them urged Navy brass to promote Jackson to a higher rank.
“Ronny’s positive impact cannot be overstated. He is a tremendous asset to the entire White House team,” Obama wrote in 2015. “Already at a level of performance and responsibility that exceeds his current rank, promote to Rear Admiral now.”
Including the Obama praise in the message could allow Trump and his senior aides to put part of the future blame on the 44th president should they pull Jackson’s nomination amid the current firestorm.
The Navy physician also has been accused of overprescribing drugs, an allegation the White House tried to rebut by highlighting the White House Medical Unit’s most recent “controlled substances audit,” which the White House says was conducted by “outside experts from Walter Reed and [the Defense Health Agency, a part of the Defense Department].
The senior official said that assessment “provided undisputable support that Dr. Jackson worked within the official guidelines while providing world class care to two Presidential Administrations,” adding: “This independent review confirms Dr. Jackson’s medicinal prescriptions were completely appropriate.”
The White House’s hours-long allowance of Jackson to twist in the Washington wind showed again how Trump often surprises his aides, who have to scramble to craft a plan to what the boss just said or tweeted.
Even as the president opened the door for his White House doctor to withdraw the nomination, Trump defended Jackson as “one of the finest people that I have met.”
“I’ll always stand behind him,” the president said.
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 that aren’t thinking nicely about our country?”
But the allegations that surfaced Tuesday morning and then Trump’s signaling he would be fine with Jackson stepping aside created a firestorm on Capitol Hill.
Senate Veterans Affairs ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont., told CNN that Jackson’s confirmation hearing would only be rescheduled “if it’s possible,” adding the allegations need to be investigated. Panel member Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told MSNBC Tuesday night that the White House had blocked him from viewing the FBI background check conducted as part of the nomination process.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would not commit to Jackson’s nomination moving even to a confirmation hearing. And Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said the White House is “doing a pretty poor job.”
“Let’s just look at Admiral Jackson,” he told reporters shortly after Trump appears to shove his military doctor and nominee onto a plank. “It’s pretty easy to see that he wasn’t properly vetted. … Now the second nominee for Veterans’ Affairs is on the rocks, simply because the administration didn’t vet the nomination.”
— Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.