By Hope Yen, Lisa Mascaro and Catherine Lucey / Associated Press
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s pick to lead Veterans Affairs, Ronny Jackson, withdrew Thursday in the wake of late-surfacing allegations about overprescribing drugs and poor leadership while serving as a top White House doctor, saying the “false allegations” against him have become a distraction.
In a statement the White House issued from Jackson, he said he “did not expect to have to dignify baseless and anonymous attacks on my character and integrity.”
Shortly after Jackson dropped out, President Donald Trump called into the Fox & Friends morning show to praise Jackson as an “incredible man” who “runs a fantastic operation.”
Now under consideration for the VA secretary post was former Rep. Jeff Miller, who previously chaired the House Veterans Affairs committee, according to two White House officials who insisted on anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Trump said Jackson had a “beautiful record” and that there was no proof of the allegations and criticizing the top Democrat on a Senate panel who was investigation the allegations. Said Trump, “I think Jon Tester has a big price to pay.” The president declined to say who he may nominate next.
Asked whether Jackson will remain on the job as White House doctor, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “Admiral Jackson is a doctor in the United States Navy assigned to the White House and is here at work today.”
Trump selected Jackson, a rear admiral in the Navy, to head the VA last month after abruptly firing former Obama administration official David Shulkin following an ethics scandal and mounting rebellion within the agency. But Jackson, a surprise choice who has worked as a White House physician since 2006, faced immediate questions from Republican and Democratic lawmakers as well as veterans groups about whether he had the experience to manage the massive department of 360,000 employees serving 9 million veterans.
Jackson also faced a series of accusations about his workplace conduct. The latest blow to his nomination to lead the government’s second-largest Cabinet agency came Wednesday with a set of accusations compiled by Sen. Jon Tester’s Democratic staff on the committee considering his nomination.
In a statement Thursday, Tester called on Congress to continue its investigation of Jackson. “I want to thank the servicemembers who bravely spoke out over the past week. It is my Constitutional responsibility to make sure the veterans of this nation get a strong, thoroughly vetted leader who will fight for them,” he said.
The committee’s Republican chairman, Sen. Johnny Isakson, said he respected Jackson’s decision and “will work with the administration to see to it we get a VA secretary for our veterans and their families.”
In just a matter of days, the allegations transformed Jackson’s reputation as a celebrated doctor attending the president to an embattled nominee accused of drinking on the job and over-prescribing drugs.
Veterans groups expressed dismay over the continuing uncertainty at the VA, pointing to a potentially faulty vetting process by the White House.
Veterans are “exhausted by the unnecessary and seemingly never-ending drama,” said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “VA’s reputation is damaged, staff is demoralized, momentum is stalled and the future is shockingly unclear.”
Dan Caldwell, executive director of the conservative Concerned Veterans for America, urged the White House to take more time “to carefully select and vet a new nominee” who could head VA.
“I would just hope for Admiral Jackson’s sake and the sake of the White House military office these allegations are fully investigated, because if they aren’t true then Admiral Jackson’s name needs to be cleared,” he said. “If they are true then there are much larger issues with the White House military office and the security clearance process.”
Based on conversations with 23 of Jackson’s current and former colleagues at the White House Medical Unit, the summary said Jackson exhibited a pattern of recklessly prescribing drugs and drunken behavior, including crashing a government vehicle while intoxicated and doling out such a large supply of a prescription opioid that staffers panicked because they thought the drugs were missing.
The Democratic staff also found had become known as “Candyman” because of the way he handed out drugs.
In a section on Jackson’s prescribing practices, the summary said that in one case, missing Percocet tabs threw members of the White House Medical Unit into a panic — but it turned out he had prescribed a “large supply” of the opioid to a White House Military Office staffer.
The allegations also referred to multiple incidents of Jackson’s intoxication while on duty, often on overseas trips. On at least one occasion he was nowhere to be found when his medical help was needed because “he was passed out drunk in his hotel room,” according to the summary.
At a Secret Service going-away party, the summary says, Jackson got drunk and wrecked a government vehicle.
Reports of overprescribing and alcohol-related behavior problems can jeopardize a doctor’s license. Many state medical boards allow doctors to keep their licenses and return to practice if they complete special treatment programs and submit to random urine screens.
The allegations were publicly released on the day that Jackson’s confirmation hearing was to have been held. The hearing was postponed indefinitely while the allegations against him are reviewed.
Sanders said Wednesday that Jackson had passed “at least four independent background checks” that found “no areas of concern.”
“He has received more vetting than most nominees,” she said.
A watchdog report requested in 2012 and reviewed by the AP found that Jackson and a rival physician exhibited “unprofessional behaviors” as they engaged in a power struggle over the White House medical unit.
That report by the Navy’s Medical Inspector General found a lack of trust in the leadership and low morale among staff members, who described the working environment as “being caught between parents going through a bitter divorce.”
It included no references to improper prescribing of drugs or the use of alcohol, as alleged in the summary compiled by the Senate Democratic staff members.
Robert Wilkie, a former Pentagon undersecretary for personnel and readiness appointed by Trump after Shulkin’s ouster, remains the acting head of the VA.
Associated Press writers Ken Thomas, Zeke Miller, Darlene Superville, Jill Colvin, Matthew Daly in Washington and AP Medical Writer Carla K. Johnson in Seattle contributed to this report.