Watchdog report points to power struggle involving VA pick

RearAdm. Ronny Jackson, President Donald Trump's choice to be secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, leaves a Senate office building after meeting individually with some members of the committee that would vet him for the post, on Capital Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 24th, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

A watchdog report ordered in 2012 by Dr. Ronny Jackson — President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs — found that he and a rival physician exhibited “unprofessional behaviors” as they engaged in a power struggle over the White House medical unit.

The report, reviewed Tuesday by The Associated Press, suggested the White House consider replacing Jackson or Dr. Jeffrey Kuhlman — or both. Kuhlman was the physician to President Barack Obama at the time, and had previously held the role occupied by Jackson: director of the White House Medical Unit.

The six-page report by the Navy’s Medical Inspector General found a lack of trust in the leadership and low morale among staff members, who described the working environment as “being caught between parents going through a bitter divorce.”

“There is a severe and pervasive lack of trust in the leadership that has deteriorated to the point that staff walk on ‘eggshells,’” the report found.

Trump suggested Tuesday that Jackson might want to withdraw. Jackson has been hurt by the emergence of allegations about inappropriate workplace behavior, including over-prescribing prescription drugs and drinking on the job.

The inspector general report reviewed by The AP includes no references to improper prescribing or the use of alcohol.

According to the report, Jackson admitted he had failed to shield the White House medical unit from the leadership drama. He is quoted saying he was willing to do what was necessary to straighten out the command, even if it “meant finding a new position in Navy Medicine.”

The report stated that the “vast majority” of those interviewed said Kuhlman had “irrevocably damaged his ability to effectively lead.” It added that “many also believe that CAPT Jackson has exhibited poor leadership,” but attributed those failures to the relationship with Kuhlman.

The report quoted unnamed members of the White House medical unit who, while participating in a focus group, used phrases like “Worst command ever,” ?No one trusts anyone” and “The leaders are child-like.”

Jackson was named Physician to the President in 2013, after Kuhlman left the unit entirely.

Trump said Tuesday he would stand behind Jackson, calling the White House doctor “one of the finest people that I have met.” But he questioned why Jackson would want to put up with the scrutiny, which he characterized as unfair.

“I wouldn’t do it,” Trump said. “What does he need it for? What do you need this for? To be abused by a bunch of politicians that aren’t thinking nicely about our country?”

He said Jackson would make a decision soon.

Trump spoke at a White House news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron shortly after the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee announced that Jackson’s confirmation hearing, scheduled for Wednesday, would be postponed indefinitely while senators looked into the allegations.

The committee chairman, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and the top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, said, “We will continue looking into these serious allegations and have requested additional information from the White House to enable the committee to conduct a full review.”

Asked if Jackson’s nomination is still viable, Isakson responded, “We’ll see.”

The two lawmakers sent a letter to Trump on Tuesday requesting additional information about Jackson, who has served as a White House physician since 2006. It demands any communication between the Pentagon and the White House for the last 12 years regarding “allegations or incidents” involving him.

Allegations began surfacing late last week involving Jackson’s workplace practices, including claims of inappropriate behavior and over-prescribing prescription drugs, according to two aides granted anonymity to discuss the situation. The complaints the White House heard include that he oversaw a poor work environment and that he had drunk alcohol on the job, according to an administration official who demanded anonymity to speak on a sensitive personnel matter.

A doomed nomination would be a political blow to the White House, which has faced criticism for sloppy vetting of Cabinet nominees and tough confirmation battles in a Senate where Republicans hold a slim 51-49 majority. Prior to Jackson’s nomination, Trump had told aides and outside advisers that he was fond of Jackson personally and was said to be particularly impressed with Jackson’s performance at the White House press room podium in January, when he offered a glowing report on the president’s physical and mental well-being.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the American people were the losers in a shaky nomination effort. The Trump Cabinet, he said, “is turning into a sad game of musical chairs.”

Trump selected Jackson to head the VA last month after firing former Obama administration official David Shulkin following an ethics scandal and mounting rebellion within the agency. But Jackson has faced numerous questions from Republican and Democratic lawmakers as well as veterans groups about whether he has the experience to manage the massive department of 360,000 employees serving 9 million veterans.

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