Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, M.D., left, sits with Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Veteran's Affairs Committee, before their meeting on April 16.

Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, M.D., left, sits with Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Veteran's Affairs Committee, before their meeting on April 16. Alex Brandon/AP

Trump Officials Defend VA Pick as He Gears Up for Contentious Confirmation

VA secretaries typically sail through confirmation, but Ronny Jackson’s lack of experience has the White House on the defensive.

President Trump’s choice to lead the Veterans Affairs Department will likely face a contentious confirmation hearing, though the administration is confident the “unconventional” pick will succeed in the role despite the unusual pushback.

Key lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill have expressed skepticism about Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson’s nomination, raising concerns about his lack of experience on veterans issues and management in general. The White House’s top VA point person until this month defended the choice, however, saying observers misunderstand what is required of someone leading the government’s second-largest department.

“What I have learned through all my years at VA previously and now, and why I think the president may have gone in the direction he had, is if you’re doing a certain type of thing and it’s not working, why keep doing it?” said Darin Selnick, who until the end of March served as VA adviser on the White House’s Domestic Policy Council. He was previously a senior adviser to former Secretary David Shulkin.

“I have seen this from all angles,” added Selnick, who has served as special assistant to three VA secretaries. “The traditional people they have trotted out there have failed.”

Shulkin, Selnick said, like his predecessors was a “smart guy” who people liked but a leader who failed to get things done. The secretary helped usher through a wide array of legislative wins, from easing the firing of department employees to reform of the disability benefits appeals process, but the White House felt he failed to properly implement those changes.

On the most controversial issue VA faces, namely the role the private sector should play in providing health care to veterans, Shulkin saw eye-to-eye with the White House, veterans groups and many in Congress, but failed to get reform legislation over the finish line. The ousted secretary faced criticism for making different commitments depending on his audience, an attack Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., launched pointendly and publicly during one of Shulkin’s last congressional hearings.

Selnick agreed, saying Shulkin’s “downfall” came about because “you can’t promise everyone everything.” Selnick attempted to downplay the widespread reports of discord between Shulkin and other officials in VA and at the White House, saying fears of privatizing VA health care were unfounded and the idea was never considered.

Most lawmakers consistently praised Shulkin and defended him after Trump fired him. They have taken at best a neutral tone toward Jackson, saying they need more information on the views of the White House doctor.

“The VA needs a leader who is able to work with Congress to implement legislative solutions and oversee a large and multifaceted department,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., after meeting Jackson last week. “I congratulate Dr. Jackson on his nomination, and I look forward to chairing his confirmation hearing and learning more about his plans for the VA.”

The confirmation hearing before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee is scheduled to take place on Wednesday, but news reports Monday night said it may be delayed to allow more time to review allegations of improper conduct against Jackson. 

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the top Democrat on the committee, also said he wanted Jackson to “answer more questions,” and was generally more critical after meeting the nominee.

“I have concerns about whether his experience qualifies him to run the nation's largest health care system,” Tester said.

Congressionally chartered veterans service organizations and former VA leaders have also raised questions about Jackson’s fitness to serve as secretary. The reluctance to embrace Jackson is unusual; since VA became a cabinet-level department in 1989, a VA secretary nominee has not received a “no” vote from any single senator. According to an Axios report, even officials within the White House are uneasy about Jackson’s lack of credentials. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, however, attempted on Monday to downplay those comments.

"Dr. Jackson is an incredibly highly qualified individual,” Sanders told reporters. “He's served our country on the battlefield as well as under three presidents. I think it's sad that you've got a few members of Congress who have never managed anything more than a congressional office attacking someone who has served our country, served it admirably, and we have a lot of confidence.”

To Selnick, whose own appointment sparked concerns due to his ties to the Koch brothers-funded group Concerned Veterans for America, Jackson’s lack of experience could actually serve as a benefit. The department, he said, is not in need of a new course to chart and a framework for choice reform legislation has already been brokered by VA, the White House and Congress. Shulkin previously served as VA’s undersecretary for health and entered the department with ideas from which Selnick said he had a hard time backing away.

“This is the advantage Jackson has,” Selnick said. “If the facts lead you somewhere else than your preconceived ideas, you’ve got to be willing to leave your preconceived ideas if they’re not going to work. Jackson is walking in without the preconceived ideas. He’s open to the way this will work, where the facts are, and running with that.”

The most important priority for Jackson, Selnick added, will be adding competent people around him. Jackson will have to rebuild relationships Shulkin had worked to cultivate and earn the trust of those at the White House, which will require cooperation.

“This is a team sport,” Selnick said. “If you have an open mind and you are a quick learner, then you will get up to speed relatively quickly.”

Shulkin himself has since his firing called Jackson a friend and said he has “considerable respect” for his potential replacement. Three additional former secretaries sent a letter to Senate leadership on Monday praising Jackson and offering their “wholehearted support.”

“We believe, as former leaders of the VA, that Admiral Jackson’s experience as a leader, veteran, and physician will serve him well as he takes on the management challenges of leading the department,” Anthony Principi, Jim Nicholson and James Peake, the former secretaries, wrote. “Whether in the deserts of Taqaddum, Iraq or the marble halls of the White House, Dr. Jackson has proven himself a leader more than capable of making the necessary reforms at the VA and providing our veterans with the care they deserve.”

This story has been updated to reflect news reports that Jackson's confirmation hearing may be delayed