The White House is defending President Trump’s choice to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, even as questions swirl around the nominee, White House physician Dr. Ronny Jackson.
“Dr. Jackson deserves a fair hearing, and we are not going to write him off in any way before his hearing, and quite frankly neither should members of Congress,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told Rachel Martin on NPR’s Morning Edition Wednesday.
Gidley said the FBI background investigation into Jackson “was clean and there are no issues in the background check whatsoever.”
Jackson’s confirmation hearing, originally scheduled for Wednesday, was indefinitely postponed. And even as Trump defended his nominee, he suggested Jackson might prefer to withdraw.
“What do you need it for?” Trump said he told Jackson Tuesday. “I don’t want to put a man through a process like this. It’s too ugly and too disgusting.”
Jackson, a Navy rear admiral who has served as personal physician to both Trump and former President Barack Obama, was already facing tough questions about whether he had the managerial experience to lead the VA.
Then, late last week, complaints surfaced about Jackson drinking on duty during foreign trips, improperly dispensing prescription medication, and overseeing a hostile work environment in the White House medical unit, according to Sen. John Tester, D-Mont., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
The complaints came from more than 20 active duty and retired military personnel who had worked for Jackson, Tester said.
“There’s a lot of smoke there,” Tester told All Things Considered‘s Ari Shapiro about the as-yet-unsubstantiated allegations.
Veterans committee member Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, told Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition Wednesday that “what’s concerning for this committee is the kind of information that has come forward, and we need to find out more about his ability to handle the second-largest agency in the entire government.”
Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican on the committee, has said Jackson denied ever having a drink while on duty.
Reporters caught up with Jackson on Capitol Hill Tuesday on his way to Moran’s office. “I was looking forward to the hearing,” Jackson said in video captured by MSNBC. “Kind of disappointed that it’s been postponed, but I’m looking forward to getting it rescheduled and answering everybody’s questions.”
Asked whether he “categorically denied” the allegations against him, he said, “I’m looking forward to the hearings, so we can sit down and I can explain everything to everyone and answer all the senators’ questions.”
Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Tester sent a letter to Trump on Tuesday requesting additional documentation related to Jackson’s tenure as the president’s doctor and his role leading the White House medical team.
The letter requested information about rumored Pentagon inspector general reports said to detail allegations into Jackson’s conduct.
The White House says Jackson has never been the subject of an Inspector General’s report and pointed to glowing performance reviews he received from both Trump and Obama.
“Ronny’s positive impact cannot be overstated,” Obama wrote in 2015. “He is a tremendous asset to the entire White House team.”
Trump echoed that sentiment last year, writing, “Dr. Jackson is a great doctor + leader — ‘2 star material,’ ” in bold sharpie.
Jackson has served in the medical unit since 2006, caring for three presidents. He specializes in emergency medicine and served with a battlefield surgical unit in Iraq.
An administration official suggested the complaints may be fallout from Jackson’s rivalry with another doctor in the White House Medical Unit dating back to 2012.
The rivalry between Jackson and Dr. Jeffrey Kuhlman prompted a “command climate assessment” of the medical unit that year, which found low morale.
“The staff characterized the working environment as being caught between parents going through a bitter divorce with one parent undermining and talking bad about the other,” according to a report of the findings.
The White House says it was Jackson who requested that assessment and hinted Kuhlman is behind the more recent complaints. Jackson “will certainly not be railroaded by a bitter ex-colleague who was removed from his job,” said a White House statement.
Trump caught many observers off guard when he picked Jackson to replace ousted VA Secretary David Shulkin. Unlike Shulkin, who had managed a large medical organization before joining the VA, Jackson has never overseen more than 75 people.
“I know there’s an experience problem because of lack of experience,” Trump admitted Tuesday. “But he is a man who has just been an extraordinary person. His family, extraordinary success. Great doctor. Great everything.”
Administration spokesman Gidley said, “The question is, does anyone ever have management experience for an organization this size?”
Jackson is also a blank slate on one of the key policy questions facing the VA: what role the private sector should play in providing veterans health care. Many of the large veterans service organizations are wary of what they see as a push towards privatization. Shulkin complained that he was fired, in part, for resisting that push.
Trump insisted he would stand behind his nominee, even as he suggested the political battle might not be worth it.
“I wouldn’t do it,” Trump also said Tuesday. “What does he need it for? To be abused by a bunch of politicians that aren’t thinking nicely about our country? I really don’t think, personally, he should do it. But it’s totally his — I would stand behind him — totally his decision.”
The president met Tuesday in the Oval Office with Jackson, a White House official confirmed to NPR.
The official, who declined to speak on the record, said Jackson wants to keep fighting and that Trump supports his decision.
Former Obama administration staffers also defended Jackson’s character, even as they questioned whether he is the right choice for the VA job. One former Obama staffer who spent a lot of time around Jackson on official trips said he had never seen evidence that Jackson drank while on duty. The former staffer said that Jackson and other White House doctors provided Ambien, a sleep medication, when staffers requested them while on overnight flights to Europe and Asia.
NPR national politics correspondent Mara Liasson contributed to this report.
Biden Expected To Repeal Military Trans Ban Tomorrow
The Biden administration is expected to repeal the ban on transgender Americans from serving in the military, multiple people informed of the decision told CBS News. The announcement is expected as soon as Monday, one senior Defense official and four outside advocates of repealing the ban told CBS News.
The senior Defense official told CBS News the repeal will be through executive order signed by President Joe Biden. The announcement is expected to take place at a ceremony with newly-confirmed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who will order the Pentagon to go back to the policy enacted in 2016 by former Defense Secretary Ash Carter that allowed transgender Americans to serve openly.
The White House did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
The new order will direct the branches of the military to outline an implementation plan.
The ban was announced by former President Trump via a tweet in July 2017. The ban took effect in April 2019 and barred transgender Americans from enlisting in the military.
In 2014, it was estimated there were around 15,500 transgender military members serving, according to a study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.
Biden frequently repeated on the campaign trail his promise to repeal the ban.
Austin said at his Senate confirmation hearing last week that he planned to repeal the ban.
“I support the president’s plan or plan to overturn the ban,” Austin said on Tuesday when asked by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, “I truly believe, Senator, that as I said in my opening statement, that if you’re fit and you’re qualified to serve and you can maintain the standards, you should be allowed to serve. And, you can expect that I will support that throughout.”
Trump Pardons Steve Bannon In One of His Final Acts As 45th President
(CNN)— President Donald Trump has decided to pardon his former chief strategist Steve Bannon, in a last-minute decision made only hours before he is scheduled to depart the White House for a final time.
Officials cautioned CNN that Trump’s decision was not final until he signed the paperwork. Trump told people that after much deliberation, he had decided to pardon Bannon as one of his final acts in office.
Bannon’s pardon would follow a frantic scramble during the President’s final hours in office as attorneys and top aides debated his inclusion on Trump’s outgoing clemency list. Despite their falling out in recent years, Trump was eager to pardon his former aide after recently reconnecting with him as he helped fan Trump’s conspiracy theories about the election.
It was a far cry from when Trump exiled Bannon from his inner circle after he was quoted in a book trashing the President’s children, claiming that Donald Trump Jr. had been “treasonous” by meeting with a Russian attorney and labeling Ivanka Trump “dumb as a brick.” Those statements from Bannon drove Trump to issue a lengthy statement saying he had “lost his mind.”
“Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency,” Trump said at the time.Things shifted in recent months as Bannon attempted to breach Trump’s inner circle once again by offering advice before the election and pushing his false theories after Trump had lost.
Since Trump’s election defeat, the President has leaned further into his expansive pardon powers — granting pardons to his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, longtime ally Roger Stone and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, among others.
Among Trump’s pardons earlier in his term were those for former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza and financier Michael Milken.
California Governor Formally Appoints Alex Padilla To Fill US Senate Seat Vacated By Kamala Harris
(CNN) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom formally submitted the appointment of Alex Padilla to the US Senate today, according to a press release from the governor’s office.
Padilla formally resigned as Secretary of State this morning and Gov. Newsom also submitted his nomination letter for Assembly member Shirley Weber to replace him. The Deputy Secretary of State, James Schwab, will be the Acting Secretary of State.
“It is fitting that on the same day we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — a civil rights icon who fought for justice and representation — we also move forward the appointment of California’s first Latino U.S. Senator Alex Padilla and the nomination of Dr. Shirley Weber who will serve as the first-ever African American Secretary of State. Both will be strong defenders of our democracy during this fragile moment in our nation’s history,” said Gov. Newsom.
“I am humbled and honored by your trust in me to represent California in the United States Senate. I look forward to continuing to serve the great State of California as a United States Senator and to ensuring that the rights and democratic principles we cherish are protected and preserved for all people,” Padilla wrote in a letter to Gov. Newsom.
Some context: Earlier today, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris formally resigned her seat as one of California’s US Senators. She’ll be inaugurated as vice president on Wednesday, Jan. 20. In a farewell addressed posted to Twitter, Harris said, “Of course, I’m not saying goodbye. In many ways, I’m now saying hello as your vice president.”
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