Confirmation woes: Trump VA pick's turn on the hot seat

Perhaps Ronny Jackson should have stuck to presidential medicine. After a surprise appointment to run the Department of Veterans Affairs, the White House doctor and US Navy admiral had prompted skepticism from the Senate due to his lack of experience in running large organizations. However, multiple news outlets report that the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee has begun to hear allegations of misconduct that could derail Jackson’s confirmation — and his existing career to boot:

Newly raised concerns about the professional conduct of Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson as a military doctor threaten to delay, or possibly derail, his nomination to be secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, sources on Capitol Hill and at the White House tell ABC News.

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee planned to hold a confirmation hearing for Jackson on Wednesday. Sources say that hearing could now be in doubt.

“Professional conduct” covers a lot of ground, but ABC doesn’t provide anything more specific. CNN’s report was similarly vague, although it notes that the allegations have Republicans on the committee concerned about Jackson’s prospects for confirmation. CBS, on the other hand, hears that the scope might be rather broad:

The ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs committee is reviewing allegations he’s hearing about Ronny Jackson, the White House physician and President Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. It was unclear late Monday whether the Senate panel would postpone Jackson’s confirmation hearing, which was scheduled for Wednesday, in light of stories about the nominee told by current or former White House medical staff.

Sources familiar with the tales say Sen. Jon Tester’s committee staff is reviewing multiple allegations of a “hostile work environment.” The accusations include “excessive drinking on the job, improperly dispensing meds,” said one of the people familiar, who was granted anonymity to speak frankly about the situation. The other people familiar with the stories also confirmed those details.

The allegations were enough to delay Jackson’s confirmation hearing with the veterans committee, The Washington Post reported last night. According to their sources in the White House, the concern over Jackson is bipartisan:

Senate lawmakers have postponed the confirmation hearing for Ronny L. Jackson, President Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, after top Republicans and Democrats raised concerns about his qualifications and oversight of the White House medical staff, White House and other administration officials were told Monday. …

The White House also is assessing whether questions that have been raised about Jackson have validity, officials said.

Senate appointments often bring heightened public scrutiny on public officials, but Jackson has hardly been a wallflower over the last several years. He served as the official White House physician to Barack Obama without any hint of misconduct on the job or creating a “hostile environment.” Jackson didn’t draw any interest at all from the media other than as a human-interest story until he offered an enthusiastic voucher for Donald Trump’s health in January. After that, he became a target for critics, and yet not a word about any potential misconduct arose until after his surprise appointment to the VA.

The timing is curious, although hardly conclusive. However, Jackson was going to be a long shot for confirmation anyway even apart from any potential professional peccadilloes, and perhaps the White House knew it, too. The Post’s reporting team says that the administration hardly put its A-team behind Jackson for his confirmation effort, leaving him badly exposed even without these issues arising:

In recent weeks, the White House sent senior career and political officials from different VA offices to brief Jackson on issues confronting the agency. But the process seemed poorly coordinated, according to current and former administration officials.

Jackson is well liked among senior White House officials, who had worked with him on a daily basis. But the administration has not put its full weight behind his nomination, according to people familiar with the matter, appointing mid-level aides to oversee Jackson’s briefing by VA experts and sending a junior media aide from the White House to help him make the rounds on Capitol Hill. With the recent departure of Darin Selnick, the White House’s most seasoned expert on veterans’ issues, Trump has few aides with deep knowledge of how the agency works.

“He was walking into an ambush,” a veterans advocate close to the White House said of the Senate hearing. “He is just not ready.”

One has to wonder whether these allegations are part of the ambush, or another in a series of vetting issues in the candidate-selection process at the White House. At any rate, delaying the confirmation hearing is a clear signal that Jackson is in trouble, and if these allegations have any substantiation, he might not be able to just stand pat in his current job either.

So if Jackson withdraws, who’s next on deck for a VA appointment? Senate Veterans Affairs Committee chair Johnny Isakson wants deputy secretary Thomas Bowman, according to the post, which would ensure continuity but would likely come at the cost of true choice for veterans. Former Rep. Jeff Miller would be another candidate, having chaired the House’s veterans committee for several years. Pete Hegseth would be a long shot, but perhaps Trump would lean on Rick Perry again to take up the post in order to clear the decks quickly. If Jackson implodes, Trump will need someone to take everyone’s eyes off the failure quickly, and Perry can do that while being an advocate for veterans.

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