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Ronny Jackson withdraws as VA nominee amid allegations of improper behavior

Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the White House physician, has withdrawn his nomination to be the next secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the White House physician, has withdrawn his nomination to be the next secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, President Trump's embattled nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, has withdrawn from consideration for the post amid allegations he had fostered a hostile work environment and behaved improperly while serving as the top doctor leading the White House medical unit.

In a statement Thursday morning, Jackson said, "Going into this process, I expected tough questions about how to best care for our veterans, but I did not expect to have to dignify baseless and anonymous attacks on my character and integrity."

He continued, "While I will forever be grateful for the trust and confidence President Trump has placed in me by giving me this opportunity, I am regretfully withdrawing my nomination to be Secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs."

The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee had postponed Jackson's confirmation hearing, originally slated for Wednesday, after accusations of misconduct surfaced against Jackson, who has served as the personal physician for the president under the Trump and Obama administrations.

On Wednesday, allegations were detailed including improper prescribing of the opiate painkiller Percocet and wrecking a government vehicle while intoxicated at a Secret Service going-away party. Jackson denied that accusation to reporters.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the ranking Democrat on the committee, detailed the allegations in an interview Tuesday with NPR's All Things Considered, which included accusations of creating a hostile work environment, drinking while on duty and improperly prescribing drugs to White House staff. The allegations came from more than 20 military employees who approached senators ahead of Jackson's confirmation hearing.

"We were told stories where he was repeatedly drunk while on duty where his main job was to take care of the most powerful man in the world. That's not acceptable," Tester said, pointing out that these allegations date back to when Jackson oversaw former President Obama's health care as well.

Tester also said that Jackson was accused of giving staff drugs during overseas trips to help them adjust to time changes, in addition to creating a hostile work environment among his staffers.

"Some of the exact words that were used by the folks we talked to were 'abusive toward staff,' 'very explosive personality,' 'belittles the folks underneath him,' staff that he oversaw. 'Screamed toward staff,'" Tester said. "Basically creating an environment where the staff felt that they needed to walk on eggshells when they were around him."

Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican on the Veterans' Affairs Committee, has said Jackson denied ever having a drink while on duty.

Reporters caught up with Jackson on Capitol Hill Tuesday on his way to Moran's office.

"I was looking forward to the hearing tomorrow," Jackson said in video captured by MSNBC. "Kind of disappointed that it's been postponed, but I'm looking forward to getting it rescheduled and answering everybody's questions."

Asked whether he "categorically denied" the allegations against him, he said, "I'm looking forward to the hearings, so we can sit down and I can explain everything to everyone and answer all the senators' questions."

Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Tester sent a letter to Trump on Tuesday requesting additional documentation related to Jackson's tenure as the president's doctor and his role leading the White House medical team.

The letter requested information about rumored Pentagon inspector general reports said to detail allegations into Jackson's conduct.

Jackson himself, though, said there was no inspector general report about the allegations. "No, there was not," he said before brushing off questions about whether he would withdraw.

Jackson's initial nomination came as a surprise to many when the president announced his pick last month to lead the VA after the departure of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, who had been confirmed with unanimous bipartisan support in the Senate.

While previous presidents had praised Jackson's medical care, almost immediately questions arose as to whether or not he had the managerial experience to oversee a massive health care operation of 370,000 employees that serves more than nine million veterans and has a budget of nearly $200 billion.

"Admiral Jackson is highly trained and qualified and as a service member himself, he has seen firsthand the tremendous sacrifice our veterans make and has a deep appreciation for the debt our great country owes them," Trump said in announcing his nomination.

But after the allegations against Jackson began to be reported by national media outlets this week, Trump said he wouldn't be surprised if Jackson wanted to withdraw given the rising storm, but that it was "his decision."

"I wouldn't do it. I wouldn't do it. What does he need it for? To be abused by a bunch of politicians that aren't thinking nicely about our country? I really don't think personally he should do it, but it's totally his — I would stand behind him — totally his decision," Trump remarked Tuesday during a news conference alongside French President Emmanuel Macron.

Ultimately, as he often does, Trump appeared to go with his gut in picking Jackson and it's unclear how much — if any — vetting the White House did before making the selection. Trump had become personally fond of Jackson, especially after he gave him a glowing review after his first presidential physical earlier this year, even boasting that the 71-year-old president had such "great genes" that "if he had a healthier diet over the last 20 years he might live to be 200."

Jackson joined the White House medical unit in 2006, helping care for President George W. Bush, and was formally named physician to the president in 2013 by President Barack Obama. A West Texas native, he attended Texas A&M University and the University of Texas Medical Branch, specializing in emergency medicine.

There were also questions about Jackson's position on privatizing the VA — something many of Trump's most conservative backers have pushed for. Shulkin said he believed that was one reason he was ousted from his post, though there were also questions raised about improper travel expenses during his tenure.

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