President Trump promised to back up Ronny Jackson, his embattled nominee to run the Department of Veterans Affairs, in an Oval Office meeting Tuesday, according to two senior administration sources directly involved in the process. Jackson said he wanted to get a chance to defend himself in public -- meaning, in a hearing.
Jackson is accused of improperly dispensing drugs, creating a hostile work environment and drinking on duty, allegationsand allegations the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee says were brought forward by 20 current and retired military personnel. But Jackson believes he has a story to tell, and he wants the opportunity. He believes he can advocate for Mr. Trump's agenda at the VA and have the president's direct backing to name the bureaucracy -- and some administration officials believe that.
Still, problems remain. Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, is not on board, and the White House cannot make him hold a hearing. The administration officials describe GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as indifferent or overly cautious. They hope to persuade McConnell to encourage Isakson to schedule a hearing for Jackson. Democrats sense, correctly, that Jackson is hanging by a threat and lockstep opposition to him could mean Republicans will have to hold together on confirmation -- which is very hard to predict in this climate.
The White House, by the admission of these two officials, has done almost nothing to tell Jackson's story or explain why he would work well leading the VA. As one said, "the White House has done a horrible job and then next 24 to 48 hours will be crucial. He's not done." Some in the White House believed Jackson was chosen too quickly, and not enough was initially invested in his nomination. Mr. Trump, in the same tweet in which he announced the ousting of former VA Secretary David Shulkin.
As for the allegations, Jackson is inclined to seek a chance to clear his name, but he could still back out. Jackson's mindset appears to be not to fight forever, but to fight to get a chance to tell his side of the story and argue the last-minute allegations are unfair or mischaracterized.
The key going forward will be how aggressively the White House gets behind Jackson, and if Isakson budgets on scheduling a hearing. Jackson's confirmation hearing was initially delayed after the allegations emerged Monday night.
On Tuesday afternoon in a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron, Mr. Trump praised Jackson, but gave him an opportunity to withdraw his name from consideration.
"Well, I haven't heard of the particular allegations, but I will tell you he's one of the finest people that I have met, and I think speaking for Melania, also," Mr. Trump said. "He's been the doctor for President Obama, I believe for President Bush, for me. I've gotten to know him pretty well. He's a great doctor ... But I told Admiral Jackson just a little while ago, I said, 'What do you need this for?' This is a vicious group of people that malign -- and they do.
And I've lived through it; we all lived through it. You people are getting record ratings because of it, so congratulations. But I said, 'What do you need it for?' He's an admiral. He's a great leader. And they questioned him about every little thing."