For days now, President Donald Trump has been angrily tweeting at Sen. Jon Tester, the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, for spreading wild allegations that fueled the implosion of the Veterans Affairs nomination of Ronny Jackson. But privately, relations are nearly as strained between the White House and the committee’s top Republican over what West Wing officials have described as the “smearing” of the White House physician.
According to four sources familiar with the situation, both inside and outside of the West Wing, the Trump White House has grown increasingly angry with Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, for his apparent disinclination to warn administration officials in advance of Tester’s media blitz.
Numerous congressional and Veterans Affairs sources told The Daily Beast that Tester was closely in touch with his Republican colleague throughout the last two weeks, when committee members first heard allegations against Jackson and began to investigate them. There was even an implicit understanding that Tester would be the one to address those allegations with the press as Isakson and other Republicans, while wary of getting into an intra-party feud, were nonetheless eager to send a critical message to the White House about its porous vetting operation.
“They were trying to train Trump, but they didn’t have the balls to stand up to him,” said one top-ranking Democrat familiar with the plan.
When the more brutal allegations against Jackson started coming to light—accusations of unprofessional late-night disturbances, drinking on the job, and wrecking a car—much of Trump’s senior staff was caught off-guard.
This set off a barrage of angry phone calls from Trump’s team to Republican officials on Capitol Hill. The president’s public wrath has been directed at the Montana Democrat, who is up for reelection this year. “I know things about the senator I can say, too,” Trump said of Tester in remarks at a political rally on Saturday. “If I said them, he would never be elected again.”
But there is no shortage of bitterness and distrust of Isakson among top brass in the West Wing. Senior White House officials began privately talking with each other about whether Isakson could have failed to aid or even warn Team Trump because the Republican chair was still sour after the president had abruptly nominated Jackson over the senator’s preferred contenders.
Isakson, whose office did not return requests for comment as of publication time, has clashed with the West Wing over high-profile policy and personnel decisions at the VA, culminating in Jackson’s nomination this month. Isakson is close with VA Deputy Secretary Tom Bowman, the committee’s former staff director, whom he favored to take over for David Shulkin on an interim basis when the former VA chief was ousted in March. Instead, the White House tapped Undersecretary of Defense Robert Wilkie to serve as acting secretary while the Senate considered Jackson’s nomination, which ended in inglorious fashion this past week.
The fallout of the failed Jackson bid has brought to the surface the remarkable tensions and delicate alliances that have come to define D.C. politics in the age of Trump.
On the Hill, there is a sense of dismay over how poorly the process was handled. Much of the criticism has been directed at Trump’s team for cavalierly choosing a nominee with dubious credentials and asking lawmakers to, essentially, do the research usually done by the nominating body.
Into that void has come confusion and chaos. It was committee Democrats who first heard rumors around Jackson a week and a half ago. They and the committee began investigating them over a five-day period, interviewing roughly 25 individuals. But, as things do on the Hill, word trickled out. And by Monday, some of the more salacious details were making their way into press reports.
Some members of the committee say they were provided with little to no documentation supporting the allegations against Jackson. But those same members were also under the impression that Tester and Isakson were working hand in hand in gathering information on those allegations, even if that information wasn’t filtering down to more junior committee members. Isakson and Tester are exceptionally close, and pride themselves on the bipartisan reputation of the committee. Among other vignettes that illustrate their bond, it was noted that Tester recently taught Isakson how to take a selfie.
That closeness was confirmed last Monday, when the committee announced it was delaying the Jackson confirmation hearing—a decision, numerous aides noted, that required Isakson’s assent.
But then came Tester’s decision to go public with what the committee knew. Hill sources had different ideas about why the Montana Democrat chose to sit down NPR and CNN on Tuesday afternoon. One aide said “he got ahead of his skis.” Others suggested it was with Isakson’s consent and done, in part, because Isakson has kept a lower public profile as he deals with health-related matters that have affected his physical but not cognitive abilities.
“Tester wouldn’t have done this without Isakson’s sign-off,” said one source who frequently works with committee members of both parties.
On Saturday, a day after Jackson withdrew his nomination, Isakson’s office released a statement saying the senator “doesn’t have any issues” with how Tester had handled the matter. On Monday, Isakson again declined to distance himself from his colleague, telling reporters he is “not in the critiquing business.”
While Trump has argued that his physician was maligned unfairly by Tester in particular, the White House was also informed, via Republicans on the committee, that more damaging information would potentially surface if they continued to push for a vote on Jackson. Tester’s office only included claims that it had double-or-triple sourced in its document on Jackson. Several aides confirmed there were other details they were set to try and track down but ultimately did not pursue. At least two aides suggested Tester would feel compelled to re-start research if the attacks by Trump persisted.
Despite public denials from the Secret Service, among others, regarding allegations surrounding Jackson, CNN reported Monday evening that Vice President Mike Pence’s doctor had warned the White House last year that Jackson may have violated the medical privacy of the Karen Pence, the vice president’s wife.
As for Jackson, he recently took time off with his family to determine if he even wants to stay on in the public eye as President Trump’s doctor. Multiple people close to him described him as being actively “disgusted” by the process since Trump officially nominated him.
The blame for Jackson’s woes, however, may lie squarely with his current boss.
“None, none, of this would have happened if the president and others hadn’t foregone an actual vetting process,” one senior White House official conceded. “[Ronny] would still have his reputation.”