WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said his nominee to take over the Department of Veterans Affairs will decide in coming days whether to drop out of the confirmation process, and pledged to back his decision either way.
“The fact is I wouldn’t do it,” Trump told reporters at a White House press conference on Tuesday. “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 decision.”
Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, who currently serves as the White House physician, was nominated by Trump last month to run the nearly $200 billion veterans bureaucracy, a promotion that caught many lawmakers and members of the veterans community by surprise.
He was scheduled to go before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday for a confirmation hearing, but that event was postponed after senators expressed concerns about mounting allegations against Jackson regarding unprofessional behavior and leadership failures in the White House medical office.
Senators would not detail the allegations, and Trump said he was unaware of the specifics. In his remarks, he repeatedly praised Jackson as “one of the finest people I have met.”
On Tuesday, in an interview with MSNBC, Jackson said he was “looking forward to the hearing so we can sit down and I can explain everything and answer all of the senators’ questions.”
But just a few hours later, Trump suggested that Jackson may drop out of the process altogether to avoid the political fallout.
“What he is is a leader and a good man,” Trump said in response to questions about the allegations.
“I don’t want to put a man, who is not a political person, through a process like this. It’s too ugly and disgusting. We’ll see what happens. I would stand behind him.”
Trump also blamed the confirmation hearing delay on Senate Democrats, even though the postponement was announced by Republican and Democratic leaders on the committee. He suggested the allegations (which Capitol Hill sources said came from whistleblowers) were actually planted by lawmakers upset that they couldn’t derail nomination of Mike Pompeo to be secretary of State, another contentious confirmation process.
“The Democrats have become obstructionists, they can’t do anything else,” he said. “They have bad ideas. They have bad politics. The one thing they do is obstruct.”
Jackson was on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to continue meetings with senators in advance of a hearing. If he opts to stay as the VA secretary nominee, the committee could reschedule another confirmation hearing the week of May 7 to consider his candidacy.
But Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont., said that lawmakers are still far away from answering questions about his background and picking a new hearing date. He and other Democrats in the Senate called the process thus far an indictment of the White House’s poor vetting process for high profile posts.
“I think there are serious questions that need to be answered, and the White House has an obligation to be forthcoming,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and another member of the committee. “The vetting on this nomination has been abysmal, like so many others before it. That’s why there are all these questions that have gone unanswered.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.