Trump suggests Adm. Ronny Jackson should withdraw rather than answer allegations of prior misconduct.
The Senate on Tuesday postponed a planned confirmation hearing for President Trump’s nominee to lead the Veterans Affairs Department, putting in question whether lawmakers will ever approve the secretary-designate.
Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont., announced the delay following widespread reports of Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson’s misconduct in prior jobs. The senators wrote a letter to Trump requesting any inspector general reports looking into Jackson’s prior behavior and all communications available involving such reports.
“The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is postponing the hearing to consider the nominee to be secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in light of new information presented to the committee,” Isakson and Tester said in a joint statement. “We take very seriously our constitutional duty to thoroughly and carefully vet each nominee sent to the Senate for confirmation. We will continue looking into these serious allegations and have requested additional information from the White House to enable the committee to conduct a full review.”
The committee has heard from at least 10 former and current military members who raised concerns about Jackson’s past behavior and fitness for the VA secretary position, according to committee member Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. Jackson was already expected to face a contested hearing on Wednesday, with lawmakers on both sides and key stakeholders questioning his lack of relevant experience. Few senators had pledged to support Jackson, with even Isakson saying he needed to learn more about Jackson’s views. The committee first heard about the allegations last week.
On Tuesday afternoon, AP reported that a Navy inspector general report found in 2012 that Jackson demonstrated "unprofessional behaviors" related to a feud he developed with another member of the White House medical staff. Employees reported low morale and a lack of trust in leadership.
The White House on Tuesday stood by its nominee.
"Adm. Jackson has been on the front lines of deadly combat and saved the lives of many others in service to this country,” said Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman. “He’s served as the physician to three Presidents—Republican and Democrat—and been praised by them all. Adm. Jackson’s record of strong, decisive leadership is exactly what’s needed at the VA to ensure our veterans receive the benefits they deserve."
Senators on the Veterans' Affairs Committee on Tuesday were quick to put the blame on the White House.
“The vetting on this nomination has been abysmal, like so many before,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “And that’s one of the reasons why there have been so many questions that so far have been unanswered.” He added the process going forward will depend on how quickly the White House responds to the committee's requests.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said he wants to substantiate the allegations but echoed concerns about how much the White House had researched its nominee.
“If it is true, then that is a vetting miss,” Tillis said.
Brown said he personally liked Jackson when he met him, as did some of the nominee’s current and former colleagues who brought his alleged misbehavior to light. Jackson said “all the right things,” according to Brown, including expressing opposition to privatizing VA health care.
“I don’t know what is true yet,” Brown said, “but I know all sorts of people are coming forward and that should have given the White House some pause.”
The allegations against Jackson reportedly include drinking on the job and overseeing a hostile workplace. A new date for Jackson’s confirmation hearing has not yet been announced.
Trump nominated Jackson in a surprise move after dismissing David Shulkin last month.
When asked by reporters on Tuesday, Tester declined to say whether Jackson’s nomination was in jeopardy.
“We still have more information to find out,” Tester said. “We’re working on the vetting.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he would follow whatever guidance he received from the committee and the White House.
"I'm waiting to hear from both Chairman Isakson and from the administration what they think the way forward should be and we'll take our cues from them," McConnell said.
At the White House on Tuesday, Trump said he would always “stand behind” Jackson and he would leave it up to the admiral to decide whether he wants to continue to pursue his nomination.
“I don't want to put a man through a process that's too ugly and too disgusting, so we'll see what happens,” Trump said. “It’s totally his decision.”
This story has been updated with additional comment.