WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs secretary nominee Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson withdrew his name from consideration for the job Thursday, after a week of allegations which cast doubt on his leadership and professional demeanor.
Jackson, a 23-year naval officer who serves as the White House physician, was a surprise pick for the post following the firing of former VA Secretary David Shulkin last month. President Donald Trump had repeatedly backed Jackson in recent days, even as Senate Republicans and Democrats publicly questioned whether he could ever be confirmed.
Leaders with the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee postponed his scheduled confirmation hearing this week amid reports from whistleblowers that Jackson repeatedly drank on the job, improperly handled and horded pain medication, and was abusing to staff at the White House Medical Office.
Jackson vehemently denied those charges in a statement Thursday.
“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 said.
“The allegations against me are completely false and fabricated. If they had any merit, I would not have been selected, promoted and entrusted to serve in such a sensitive and important role as physician to three presidents over the past 12 years.”
But, Jackson said the accusations have “become a distraction for this president” and the Department of Veterans Affairs, prompting him to end his bid for the Cabinet post.
In an interview with Fox News just minutes later, Trump praised Jackson as a man of integrity and said he would have made “a great VA secretary.” He also blamed “obstructionist Democrats” for derailing Jackson’s nomination.
In a statement, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont., praised “the service members who bravely spoke out over the past week” about the problems with Jackson’s nomination.
Earlier, he said nearly two dozen current and former service members have come forward to speak out against Jackson, unsolicited by Senate Democrats. While unproven, the accusations raised questions among Republicans and Democrats on the committee about the thoroughness of the White House vetting process.
“The White House bungled this nomination from the start – fumbling the facts and vetting and then failing to produce documents,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in a statement. “Veterans deserve a first-class manager with unquestionable integrity and ability … This deeply flawed process should end the administration’s repeated failures in screening and scrutinizing top level nominees.”
White House officials have pushed back against that charge in recent days, saying Jackson served three presidents and received glowing reviews from each. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said officials there had no record of the drinking and drug allegations.
In his Fox News interview, Trump said that he does have another VA secretary pick in mind — “someone with political experience” — but would not give any further details.
Tester in a statement said that he is ready to work with “Chairman (Johnny) Isakson to vet and confirm a secretary who is fit to run the VA.”
For now, the acting VA secretary is Robert Wilkie, who also serves as the Defense Department’s under secretary for personnel and readiness. Wilkie’s appointment to that role has been challenged by some veterans groups who say the role should have gone to VA Deputy Secretary Thomas Bowman, who like Shulkin has sparred with White House officials in recent months.
In a statement released Wednesday, VA spokesman Curt Cashour said that since Shulkin’s abrupt firing over Twitter last month, “senior VA officials are now on the same page, speaking with one voice to veterans, employees and outside stakeholders” and that “employees who were wedded to the status quo and not on board with this administration’s policies or pace of change have now departed VA.”
The statement also listed getting Jackson confirmed as a top priority for the department moving forward.
Administration officials told Bloomberg News that following Jackson’s withdrawal, he will remain in his post with the White House Medical Office. In his statement, Jackson said that “I am proud of my service to the country and will always be committed to the brave veterans who volunteer to defend our freedoms.”
Defense Department officials are looking into whether the allegations leveled against Jackson may warrant additional investigation, even with his nomination finished.
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.