US President Donald Trump’s physician Ronny Jackson will continue as the nominee to lead the Veterans Affairs department after allegations about his conduct stalled his Senate hearing for the job, a White House official said on Tuesday. Jackson met with Trump after the president left open the possibility during a news conference that the physician would withdraw from the process. Afterward, the White House said there was a feeling the doctor – well liked by administration figures from both parties – was being railroaded.
The controversy erupted after the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs postponed a confirmation hearing for Jackson, which had been set for Wednesday, as it looked into allegations about Jackson.
Montana Senator Jon Tester, the top Democrat on the committee, told NPR that more than 20 military personnel had come forward with concerns about improper distribution of sleeping pills and drinking alcohol on overseas trips, as well as creating a toxic work environment.
“Some of the exact words that were used by the folks who we talked to were: abusive toward staff, very explosive personality, belittles the folks underneath him – staff that he oversaw, screamed toward staff, basically creating an environment where the staff felt that they needed to walk on eggshells when they were around him,” Tester told NPR.
The Jackson episode is the latest in a series of White House personnel controversies that have resulted in a higher-than-usual turnover.
Earlier in the day, Trump said he had not heard details about the allegations against Jackson but said it was up to the Navy rear admiral, who has worked as a presidential physician since the George W. Bush administration, about whether to continue as the nominee.
“I don’t want to put a man … who’s not a political person … through a process like this. It’s too ugly and too disgusting. So, we’ll see what happens,” Trump said.
He said he stood behind Jackson though he acknowledged he had an “experience problem.”
Jackson’s qualifications to lead the sprawling Veterans Affairs department were questioned from the time Trump nominated him in late March.
The agency, which has 350,000 employees and runs 1,700 facilities that serve more than 9 million veterans a year, has long faced criticism for the quality of its care and the bureaucracy that veterans encounter. In total, it oversees healthcare and benefits for about 20 million military veterans.
It has been led by an acting secretary since late March. Trump fired former VA Secretary David Shulkin after concerns about unauthorized travel expenses.
Even after his hearing was postponed, Jackson had continued to hold meetings with senators on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
“I can answer the questions. I’m looking forward to rescheduling the hearing and answering everyone’s questions,” Jackson told reporters after meeting with Republican Senator Jerry Moran.
Moran told reporters Jackson had denied having done anything wrong.
Jackson, 50, is an Iraq war veteran trained in emergency medicine who raised his profile in January in a long and glowing news conference about Trump’s health after his first presidential medical exam.
The Senate panel’s chairman, Republican Senator Johnny Isakson, would not comment on the allegations against Jackson, other than to say: “I’ve got a job as chairman to make sure he’s vetted, and I’m going to do that.”
The Senate’s calendar might not work in Jackson’s favor. There appeared to be little chance the committee would hold a confirmation hearing this week. On Saturday, Congress begins a nine-day recess, which is a long time for any embattled presidential nominee to be in limbo.