WASHINGTON -- Ronny Jackson, President Donald Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, withdrew from consideration Thursday over mushrooming allegations of professional misconduct that raised questions about the White House vetting process.
"The allegations against me are completely false and fabricated," Jackson, the White House physician, said in a statement. "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's nomination had become imperiled even before Capitol Hill Democrats on Wednesday released new allegations of misconduct. The claims include that Jackson had wrecked a government vehicle after getting drunk at a Secret Service going-away party.
The allegations were outlined in a two-page document described by the Democratic staff of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee as a summary of interviews with 23 of Jackson's current and former colleagues. The document also described Jackson's "pattern" of handing out medication with no patient history, writing himself prescriptions and contributing to a hostile work environment with "a constant fear of reprisal."
Veteran advocates and many lawmakers also had expressed concerns about Jackson's lack of management experience, and some have worried that he would capitulate to Trump's goal of outsourcing more veteran services.
Jackson, 50, has consistently denied wrongdoing. He told colleagues Wednesday night that he had grown frustrated with the nomination process, according to two White House officials with knowledge of his deliberations. He was a surprise nominee to succeed David Shulkin, a holdover from the previous administration once lauded by Trump and who was fired March 28.
During a television interview just minutes after Jackson's statement, Trump said he had another candidate to lead the Veterans Affairs Department in mind but would not provide a name. He noted, however, that the possible nominee has more political experience than Jackson.
White House officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press that the leading person now under consideration for the Veterans Affairs post is former Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who was chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee before retiring last year. Miller is a strong proponent of expanding private care for veterans.
Trump on Thursday also blamed Democrats for derailing the nomination of "an incredible man."
"These are all false accusations," Trump said while calling in to Fox & Friends on Fox News. "They're trying to destroy a man. ... There's no proof of this. He's got a beautiful record."
Trump singled out Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the committee's ranking Democrat, for unfairly maligning Jackson and said voters in his state should make him pay a price.
The Washington Post has independently been told stories of misconduct by Jackson similar to those reported by Tester's staff, including descriptions that he drank while on duty.
Two former White House officials told the Post of instances when Jackson drank while traveling with the president -- a violation of the White House Medical Unit's policy. On one such occasion, Jackson was preparing to board Air Force One to accompany then-President Barack Obama home from an overseas trip, according to one former White House official who witnessed Jackson's behavior.
White House officials suggested Jackson might remain in his current post despite the allegations about workplace misconduct.
"Adm. Jackson is a doctor in the United States Navy assigned to the White House and is here at work today," said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
But some Democratic lawmakers questioned his merits in light of the allegations.
"I would hope the White House would closely consider whether he is the best person to provide medical care for the president," said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.
Jackson planned to retire from the Navy to take the Veterans Affairs job. Trump has put him up for a promotion from one-star to two-star admiral. That nomination remains pending with the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Jackson becomes the latest candidate Trump has put forward to run a major agency only to topple during the confirmation process. His previous nominees for labor secretary, Army secretary and Navy secretary all withdrew last year after questions arose during their vetting process.
Jackson's nomination to lead the federal government's second-largest agency was contentious from the start. White House officials, members of both political parties and veterans advocates all questioned the president's decision, which was announced via Twitter in late March.
The move coincided with Trump's removal of Shulkin. Shulkin clashed with those in the administration who have sought an aggressive expansion of the department's Choice program, which allows veterans to seek health care from private providers at taxpayer expense. Those opposed to that plan fear it will undermine efforts to address the many challenges the Veterans Affairs Department faces.
Miller, the former congressman who was described as the leading candidate, led the push to create Choice in 2014.
Jackson, whose tenure at the White House spans three administrations, has been criticized as too inexperienced to take on the task of leading an organization comprising more than 360,000 employees. Apart from overseeing the White House medical staff, Jackson had led a military trauma unit in Iraq.
He rose to prominence in January, after delivering a glowing assessment of Trump's health. The president was said to have been captivated by his doctor's appearance in the White House briefing room, where, after Trump's physical, Jackson extolled Trump's fitness and cognitive acuity.
Late last week, aides to Tester received damaging information about Jackson's management of the White House medical office. They began interviewing his colleagues, many of them active-duty military officers, whose assessment of the admiral alarmed not only Tester but also the committee's chairman, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who agreed to postpone Jackson's confirmation hearing while lawmakers investigated the allegations.
The report released by committee Democrats suggested Jackson demonstrated a "pattern" of handing out medication with no patient history, writing prescriptions for himself and contributing to a hostile work environment where there was a "constant fear of reprisal." The document also says he "wrecked a government vehicle" after getting drunk a Secret Service party.
Tester defended the release of the allegations in a statement Thursday that did not directly refer to Trump's criticism.
"I want to thank the service members who bravely spoke out over the past week," Tester said. "It is my Constitutional responsibility to make sure the veterans of this nation get a strong, thoroughly vetted leader who will fight for them."
Democrats said Thursday that the allegations against Jackson reflected a lack of proper vetting by the White House.
"To nominate Ronny Jackson without thoroughly vetting him and ensuring he'd be an experienced and qualified VA Secretary was an insult to our veterans," Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., wrote on Twitter.
Dan Caldwell, executive director of the conservative Concerned Veterans for America, urged the White House to take more time "to carefully select and vet a new nominee" who could head the Veterans Affairs Department.
Information for this article was contributed by Lisa Rein, Dan Lamothe, David Nakamura, Josh Dawsey, Seung Min Kim, Ashley Parker, John Wagner and Emily Wax-Thibodeaux of The Washington Post and by Zeke Miller, Hope Yen, Ken Thomas, Lisa Mascaro, Catherine Lucey, Darlene Superville, Jill Colvin, Matthew Daly and Carla K. Johnson of The Associated Press.
A Section on 04/27/2018
Print Headline: White House doctor pulls out as VA pick; Allegations fabricated, say Jackson, Trump