With President Donald Trump’s nomination of White House physician Dr. Ronny Jackson to head up the Department of Veterans Affairs in jeopardy, senators from both parties said Wednesday that delaying a confirmation hearing indefinitely until allegations of misconduct can be addressed is an appropriate move.
“We had a meeting scheduled for today, which I postponed, subject to my call, to make sure that all members and members of the committee get the information they need to make a quality decision and that Mr. Jackson gets the opportunity to come in and answer any questions or charges that may be made, and I’m going to see to it that happens,” said Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Wednesday.
Jackson, an unexpected choice when President Trump announced him earlier this month, had already faced skepticism from Democrats and veterans groups over his qualifications to run one of the biggest and most unwieldy agencies in the federal government. This week, though, new allegations have emerged about his performance in his current job.
According to Sen. John Tester, D-Mont., the ranking Democrat on the committee, more than 20 current and former members of the military have come forward since Jackson was nominated accusing him of inappropriate conduct including creating a hostile work environment, overprescribing medication, and drinking alcohol on duty.
"If you are drunk and something happens with the president, it's very difficult to go in and treat the president," Tester told CNN.
Other sources told CNN that an intoxicated Jackson was once stopped by the Secret Service while banging on a female co-worker’s hotel room door during an overseas trip. It was reportedly one of “multiple drunken episodes” that have been alleged involving Jackson.
Another committee member, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told WSYX current and former service members have claimed “serious problems” with Jackson that have caused enough concern to justify delaying his hearing. He questioned why none of these people who had professional experience with Jackson were contacted by the administration before he was nominated.
“The president liked Dr. Jackson because of their personal relationship at the White House, so he just put his name out there and didn’t really call around to find out if he can do the job,” Brown said.
Republicans say Jackson has denied all wrongdoing, including claims of drinking on the job. President Trump said Tuesday that if he was Jackson, he would not want to proceed with the confirmation process, but the nominee reportedly does plan to fight.
The White House blamed attacks on Jackson’s character in part on “a bitter ex-colleague” and pointed to positive evaluations of his performance by President Obama.
"Dr. Jackson's record as a White House physician has been impeccable," White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said at a briefing Wednesday. "Because he has worked within arm's reach of three presidents, he has in fact received more vetting than most nominees."
Isakson did not comment on the substance of the allegations, but he said Jackson and the veterans he aims to serve deserve to have these claims fully investigated.
“As chairman, I owe it to American people, to the President of the United States and the veterans of our country to see to it that the nominee for the head of that office gets a thorough hearing, a fair hearing, and an open hearing,” he said.
Jackson was tapped to replace Secretary David Shulkin after his conduct and his spending came under scrutiny by the inspector general and members of Congress. Trump admitted at a press conference Tuesday that Jackson has “an experience problem,” but he insisted his nominee is “an extraordinary person” and a “great doctor.”
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, noted that Jackson has been well-regarded as a member of the White House medical unit by past administrations, but he suggested the Trump administration did not sufficiently investigate him before announcing his nomination.
“I think there should have been more vetting, and it’s appropriate that they delayed the hearing to get more information because apparently there was not proper research done,” he said.
Given the frustrations lawmakers have faced in trying to get information and assistance for veterans, Portman emphasized the need for the next secretary to have management expertise in addition to understanding of or experience with veterans and health care issues.
“You need to have someone who not only has a strong background in terms of the military and veterans issues but also has a good management style” he said, “because the management experience, the ability to take a huge, complex institution like the VA--with regard to the hospitals obviously, it’s very important to be able to manage those better, but also with regard to the VA process.”
In addition to unresolved doubts about Jackson’s character and experience, Brown fears Jackson would be unable to withstand political pressure from the Trump White House to privatize veterans’ health care.
“The important thing about this nominee is if he’s confirmed that he sticks to the mission of the VA and that is providing direct health care to 9 million veterans in our country,” he said.
Veterans groups are urging lawmakers to ensure that the next secretary will fight for and protect the VA, according to Brown, and he is uncertain if Jackson can do that.
“This nominee is somebody that nobody really knows enough about,” he said.