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Trump suggests nominee for VA post drop out because of 'ugly' process

Ronny Jackson, seen here in January, is meeting with lawmakers ahead of his confirmation hearing next week. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he is standing behind Ronny Jackson to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, but suggested his embattled nominee should drop out because of what Trump characterized as "ugly" allegations that have surfaced.

"I don't want to put a man through a process like this," Trump said when asked about Jackson's nomination during a joint news conference at the White House with French President Emmanuel Macron. "It's too ugly, and it's too disgusting."

Trump said a decision about whether to proceed would be left to Jackson.

"I said to Dr. Jackson, what do you need it for?" Trump said. "To be abused by a bunch of politicians? ... If I was him . . . I wouldn't do it."

Jackson, the White House physician and a former combat surgeon, was scheduled to testify before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Wednesday. But the hearing was delayed and his nomination has become imperiled because of allegations involving dispersal of medication, a hostile work environment within the White House medical team and possible incidents of drunkenness while on duty.

"We're going to have a hearing at some time in the future, but not Wednesday," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the chairman of the panel.

Jackson declined to comment on the accusations as he arrived on Capitol Hill for meetings with senators on Tuesday ahead of Trump's news conference.

"No, I'm looking forward to the hearing," Jackson said. "I was looking forward to doing it tomorrow, so I'm looking forward to getting it rescheduled and answering all the questions."

In a private meeting with Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., on Capitol Hill, Jackson denied any wrongdoing, according to the senator.

"He does deny that he's done anything wrong in his service to the country and particularly his time at the White House as a physician in the medical unit," Moran said. Jackson "indicated that he knows of nothing that would prohibit him from being qualified, capable and the right person to be secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs."

In a statement earlier Tuesday, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said the White House continued to support Jackson.

"Admiral Jackson's record of strong, decisive leadership is exactly what's needed at VA to ensure our veterans receive the benefits they deserve," Gidley said. "Admiral Jackson has been on the front lines of deadly combat and saved the lives of many others in service to this country. He's served as the physician to three Presidents - Republican and Democrat - and been praised by them all."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday afternoon that he would take cues from the White House and the committee weighing Jackson's nomination.

"I'm going to wait and see what the president recommends and what Chairman Isakson recommends," McConnell said, adding that he was "waiting for a signal" from the White House on whether the nomination will be pulled.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, said Trump didn't take the time to send over a fully vetted nominee.

"It is sloppy, it is disrespectful to our veterans and it is wrong," said Murray.

Isakson and Sen. Jon Tester, Mont., the ranking Democrat on the committee, said in a joint statement the hearing was being postponed "in light of new information presented to the committee."

Isakson and Tester also wrote to Trump on Tuesday morning, asking the White House to provide all documents related to Jackson's service in the White House medical unit, as well as all communications between the Pentagon and the White House military office since 2006 that involve allegations or incidents connected to the physician. The senators also requested information the White House has about any allegations involving Jackson that was never relayed to the Pentagon.

The committee began investigating the allegations raised against Jackson late last week, said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the panel.

"I think the White House has to give us full, and accurate, factual responses completely addressing these questions, today. I mean, right away," said Blumenthal, who also stressed that the allegations were unsubstantiated. "Allowing these questions to fester are a disservice to the VA and to Admiral Jackson."

Isakson spokeswoman Amanda Maddox said Tuesday that the senator spoke to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly on two occasions over the last few days to discuss the new information about Jackson that was brought to the committee.

Speaking with reporters, neither Isakson nor Tester said Jackson's nomination should be withdrawn.

Tester said "if the [allegations] turn out to be true," he would be concerned, but added: "But I don't know that it is true at this moment in time."

Both Isakson and Tester declined to comment on the specifics of the allegations surrounding Jackson, including whether the accusations are detailed in documents or through word-of-mouth interviews, and when they specifically began the investigation.

Isakson said the confirmation hearing is being delayed because the committee needs "some time to get more information."

"I'm concerned that the press is making up far too many stories that aren't true before we even get a chance to have a meeting," Isakson said after meeting privately with Tester on Tuesday morning. "So I think Mr. Jackson and myself and Senator Tester and everybody in Congress need to take a deep breath. Let's give the man a chance to be heard, let's give us a chance to ask the questions that need to be [asked]."

In addition to Jackson's lack of management experience at a large organization, the physician had come under fire for his glowing appraisal of Trump's health after the president had his annual physical in January. Jackson said then that the president might live to the age of 200 with a healthier diet. In recent days, fresh concerns arose about Jackson's management of the White House medical office, said the officials, who declined to provide details.

Jackson was a surprise nominee to succeed David Shulkin, an Obama-era holdover and once a favorite of Trump's who was fired by the president on March 28. While Shulkin was an experienced hospital executive and had previously served as undersecretary of the department, his support from the White House waned following an internal investigation into his business travel and clashes over his commitment to outsourcing veterans' health care, which is among the administration's priorities.

In remarks on the floor Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said problems with Jackson's nomination reflected a broader issue with the Trump White House.

"This Trump administration has done the worst job of vetting their nominees of any administration I can remember," Schumer said. "It seems a slapdash process."

He later told reporters that the administration is "turning into a sad game of musical chairs and the America people are losing out."

A leading veterans group said Tuesday that it was important for the Senate to fully vet a nominee to lead the department, which has had seven secretaries since the start of the war in Afghanistan.

"On this critical leadership position at this turbulent time, [America] can not afford a misfire by the White House," said Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "IAVA members nationwide are calling on the Senate to do its job at this defining time and ensure that any nominee for VA Secretary will live up to this awesome responsibility."

Authors information: Seung Min Kim is a White House reporter for The Washington Post, covering the Trump administration through the lens of Capitol Hill. John Wagner is a national reporter who leads The Post's new breaking political news team. The Washington Post's Emily Wax-Thibodeaux and Lisa Rein contributed to this report.