Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson withdraws as VA secretary nominee

Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson has withdrawn from consideration as secretary for Veterans' Affairs, following a series of accusations about inappropriate behavior on the job.

WASHINGTON — The stunning collapse of Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson’s nomination to oversee the Department of Veterans Affairs is raising questions of whether military officials missed serious problems within one of the Navy’s most prestigious posts or whether political infighting unfairly smeared a high-ranking officer.

For now, Navy officials aren’t saying which side they think is true.

And Jackson’s nomination to receive a second star remains pending on Capitol Hill.

Jackson, who serves as the White House physician, withdrew his name from consideration for the top VA post on Thursday after Senate Democrats released a lengthy list of allegations from whistleblowers about his tenure in the White House Medical Office.

Among the allegations: Jackson crashed a government vehicle while driving drunk; Secret Service could not wake him for duty once because of excessive alcohol use; Jackson wrote pain medicine prescriptions for himself and distributed them freely to others; and the top White House physician used his position to abuse and denigrate colleagues.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the charges stem from nearly two dozen current and former service members who approached lawmakers without congressional prompting. He said he could not verify the validity of each charge, but the volume of the accusations raised concerns.

Trump administration officials said that Jackson will return to his post in the White House Medical Office.

But its unclear whether the Navy will be taking an additional action or investigations. The White House Medical Office’s status outside the traditional military command structure complicates further investigation into Jackson’s possible misdeeds.

Initial inquiries to the Navy on the issue were referred to the White House. Navy medical officials said they could not answer what service officials have the authority to investigate or reprimand Jackson.

But Jackson is unlikely to resume his previous role without additional scrutiny, given the seriousness of the alleged crimes.

House Veterans Affairs’ Committee ranking member Tim Walz, D-Minn., said “numerous red flags” still surround him.

Tester has requested a congressional investigation into the White House Medical Office, to resolve lingering questions.

And the Navy could open an inquiry into the allegations to determine Jackson’s standing in the service.

“If these issues weren’t investigated in the past, they certainly could be at this point,” said Greg Rinckey, founding partner at the Tully Rinckey law firm and a former Army attorney. “We could be looking at discipline, or if he decides to retire, an evaluation of what rank at which he last served honorably.”

Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, center, walks down a stairwell as he leaves a Senate office building after meeting with senators on April 24, 2018. After Jackson's decision to drop out of the VA Secretary nomination process, questions remain about whether he could face additional punishment from the military for alleged misdeeds. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, center, walks down a stairwell as he leaves a Senate office building after meeting with senators on April 24, 2018. After Jackson's decision to drop out of the VA Secretary nomination process, questions remain about whether he could face additional punishment from the military for alleged misdeeds. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

President Donald Trump and White House officials have come to Jackson’s defense in recent days, calling him an honorable man who has been unfairly attacked.

The administration has also noted that none of the allegations have come up in past background checks for Jackson, who previously served in the medical office under former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

Jackson’s annual fitness and counseling reports were signed off by the commander-in-chief, putting him outside the traditional military chain of command. His 2017 report from Trump included a recommendation that he be promoted for being “a great doctor and leader.”

The White House did release to reporters a 2012 Medical Inspector General report detailing leadership problems between Jackson and then-White house physician Capt. Jeffery Kuhlman, which details numerous management complaints against Jackson.

But the report also puts equal blame on Kuhlman for a hostile work environment, and in the end he was forced out while Jackson remained.

None of the charges in that report rise to the level of the drinking and prescription drug mishandling allegations uncovered by the Senate. Rinckey said if whistleblowers are making new information available, it could prompt a new series of investigations into Jackson’s past.

“Command surveys are always going to include some people who complain about their commander’s leadership style,” he said. “But if it’s abusive or criminal activity, that’s a different level.”