The White House never thought Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson’s nomination to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs would get out of hand so quickly.
But Republicans directly involved with the chaotic process from the beginning were less surprised.
On paper, Jackson, the White House physician, appeared to be a competent nominee even though lawmakers were concerned he lacked some key qualifications for the position.
Jackson served as the top doctor to three presidents. His FBI background file was clean. And although he might not have had the managerial experience necessary to run a behemoth like the VA, he was lauded by presidents from both parties as a consummate professional.
Then came the allegations of professional misconduct ranging from drinking on the job to improperly doling out medications. By the time the White House triage began, it was already over.
Jackson denied the claims, but withdrew his name from consideration on Thursday. He was back at work at the White House the same day.
Republican senators examining Jackson’s nomination described on Thursday a White House strategy that was unorganized at best, and negligent at worst—from start to finish. To the lawmakers and staffers who were directly involved in the confirmation process, the incomplete vetting of Jackson was just one of many strategic failures on the part of the administration.
“They weren’t ready to go when the selection occurred. So they didn’t have a whole team lined up all ready to come in,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD), a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said in an interview.
“In this case, they moved him very quickly,” Rounds added. “And I think what probably happened was they assumed that because he was already in the White House and he had gone through the vetting process for security purposes, that he would be a safe, very quick and rapidly approvable individual because of the security reviews he’s already gone through.”
The Daily Beast spoke with more than a dozen GOP senators who outlined a host of problems with the White House’s strategy in pushing Jackson through, from the initial vetting process to what they viewed as an inadequate response to the allegations when they first surfaced.
Marc Short, the White House legislative affairs chief who spearheaded the Jackson nomination, told The Daily Beast that it was “disheartening that the Senate would choose to disparage” Jackson “based on unsubstantiated allegations.”
Late last week, committee members were first informed of the allegations against Jackson, which came from more than 20 military employees who worked with the rear admiral. Those allegations included being drunk on the job, over-prescribing medications, verbally abusing staffers, and drunkenly crashing a government vehicle. By Tuesday, the committee had indefinitely postponed Jackson’s confirmation hearing, which was scheduled to take place the next day, while they looked into the accusations.
The White House was caught completely off guard, according to lawmakers and Capitol Hill aides from both parties who were directly involved in the confirmation process.
“I don’t know whether the allegations are true, but I presume in a vetting process before a nomination, people go around and find out if there’s anyone who’s going to make such allegations. And if someone makes such allegations, you’re prepared for them and have a rebuttal. As opposed to them kind of sneaking out and being caught off guard,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), a member of the veterans’ affairs committee, said in an interview.
Cassidy said the White House’s nomination process amounted to “not enough preparation and understanding that there were people who were going to come out with these allegations.”
By Tuesday night, the White House was playing defense. The press office had blasted out hand-written notes from Trump and former President Barack Obama praising Jackson’s work. A senior administration official dismissed the source of the allegations as “a bitter ex-colleague.” Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), the top Democrat on the veterans’ affairs committee, told The Daily Beast that Jackson’s FBI file “appeared fine.”
Trump himself was also defending Jackson, but he openly questioned the idea of him staying the course amid the hand-wringing process and “abuse” he was enduring. But while the president blamed congressional vetters, those lawmakers said it was the White House that didn’t do its due diligence from start to finish.
“I don’t think the preparation for the announcement of the nomination was done. And once it was made, I feel like he was hung out there by himself,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), the number-two Republican in the Senate, said in an interview. “There needs to be work done with Congress to make sure that there’s going to be more than just the nominee himself or herself out there defending themselves against unfair attacks, but also advocating on behalf of the nomination.”
Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA), a Trump ally who hasn’t been afraid to criticize the administration, said it appeared to him and his colleagues that the White House was “surprised about the allegations,” adding that “either someone didn’t do his job or made a mistake in doing the vetting.”
“A proper background examination doesn’t always turn up the stuff a nominee gets hit with. But it can find 90 percent,” he added.
Jackson’s confirmation process angered GOP lawmakers who have grown increasingly frustrated with the White House and the president over the revolving door of high-level staff departures, creating confirmation battles that none of them necessarily want to wage. While many of them have remained hesitant to outwardly criticize Trump for forcing them through politically charged Cabinet-level confirmations in an election year, this week appeared to be a turning point.
“Hopefully [the new VA nominee] won’t be a current Cabinet member, because we don’t need two more vacancies to fill,” said Cornyn.