Updated 6:55 p.m. | President Donald Trump on Tuesday defended his Veterans Affairs nominee, Ronny Jackson amid allegations of drinking on the job and creating a hostile work environment even as he opened the door for his White House doctor to withdraw his nomination.
“I’ll always stand behind him,” the president said.
But he also appeared to give Jackson an out. “If I were him … the fact is I wouldn’t do it,” Trump said. “What does he need it for? To be abused by a bunch of politicians who … aren’t thinking about the country?”
Later in the day, a senior administration official took a different tack, emphasizing Jackson’s record and pushing back on reports that an inspector general had recommended his removal from the White House in 2012.
“He has never even been the subject of an Inspector General review and he will certainly not be railroaded by a bitter ex-colleague who was removed from his job,” the White House official said in a statement. “Dr. Jackson’s record as a White House physician is impeccable. He has improved unit morale, received glowing reviews and promotions under Republican and Democrat presidents, and has been given a clean vet from the FBI.”
But the concerns about Jackson were enough that the Republican chairman and top Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee delayed Jackson’s confirmation hearing, releasing a statement that said they needed more information to properly vet the nominee.
Trump Stands Behind VA Pick, But Says ‘I Wouldn’t Do It’
“We take very seriously our constitutional duty to thoroughly and carefully vet each nominee sent to the Senate for confirmation,” the joint statement read. “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.”
When Trump nominated Jackson, the response from both sides of the aisle was relatively tepid amid questions about his qualifications to run the sprawling VA. The allegations of work misconduct added to those concerns.
But the president accused his foes of targeting Jackson after they failed to derail CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s nomination to be secretary of State.
Trump said he asked Jackson, “What do you need it for?” and said it will be Jackson’s decision on whether his VA nomination will be withdrawn. He called reporters a “vicious group of people” who are out to take down Jackson.
“We’ll see what happens,” he said. “I don’t want to put a man through a process like this — it’s too ugly and disgusting.”
Up on Capitol Hill, senators were careful in their words about the situation.
Sen. Sherrod Brown declined to detail the specific allegations against Jackson, but said it is obvious there was not sufficient vetting by the Trump administration
“The vetting wasn’t done right, because so many people have been willing to come forward, apparently almost none of whom the White House had talked to,” the Ohio Democrat said.
Brown, a member of the Veterans Affairs panel, said he first became aware of potential problems with the Jackson nomination last week. He said some of the individuals with whom senators and staff have spoken actually are personally fond of Jackson.
“Many of them like him. It’s not a question of liking him. It’s a question of what he’s done in the past that would have an impact on this job,” Brown said.
“The allegations have come from people that are in the military,” Brown said. “Or used to be in the military, former military people who came forward. Some, I assume, approached committee members. Others engaged, sometimes gave other names that the committee staff or some of us called.”
Brown also said the number of people expressing concern to the Senate panel are now in the double-digits, and it was not clear when a hearing might be able to proceed.
“I had a very good meeting with him last week. But I also support the chairman’s move to delay the hearing until these unsubstantiated allegations have been dealt with,” Sen. Mike Rounds said of Jackson’s nomination, declining to say he should withdraw.
“I have not seen the allegations that have been made, I’m aware that they exist, but I have not had the opportunity to see the allegations themselves at this time,” the South Dakota Republican added, noting Jackson “has got to make that decision himself.”
Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.