By Steve Holland and Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s physician Ronny Jackson will push ahead as the nominee to lead the Veterans Affairs department after allegations about his conduct stalled his Senate hearing for the job, a White House official said on Tuesday.
Jackson had been set to have his confirmation hearing for the job on Wednesday. But that was postponed indefinitely as senators from both parties said they wanted to look into concerns that had come to light about the Navy rear admiral, who has worked as a presidential physician since the George W. Bush administration.
Trump left open the possibility during a news conference that Jackson would withdraw from a political process the president described as “too ugly and too disgusting.”
But Jackson met with Trump late in the day, and afterward a White House official said the doctor would “certainly not be railroaded by a bitter ex-colleague.”
The White House provided copies of Jackson’s performance reviews with handwritten notes of effusive praise from former President Barack Obama and Trump, and said the FBI had given him a clean background investigation.
It also provided reports from a military medical inspector general that shed light on a toxic work environment in the White House medical unit in 2012.
The reports described a power struggle and infighting between former White House doctor Jeffrey Kuhlman and Jackson, then the director of the White House medical unit. “The staff characterized the working environment as being caught between parents going through a bitter divorce,” one report said.
Montana Senator Jon Tester, the top Democrat on the committee, told NPR that more than 20 military personnel had come forward with concerns about improper distribution of sleeping pills and drinking alcohol on overseas trips, as well as creating a toxic work environment.
“Some of the exact words that were used by the folks who we talked to were: abusive toward staff, very explosive personality, belittles the folks underneath him – staff that he oversaw, screamed toward staff, basically creating an environment where the staff felt that they needed to walk on eggshells when they were around him,” Tester told NPR.
The White House said an audit by outside experts has shown Jackson “worked within the official guidelines” in his work and confirmed his prescriptions were “completely appropriate.”
Jackson, 50, is an Iraq war veteran trained in emergency medicine who raised his profile in January in a long and glowing news conference about Trump’s health after his first presidential medical exam.
The situation is the latest in a series of White House personnel controversies that have resulted in a higher-than-usual turnover.
Jackson’s qualifications to lead the sprawling Veterans Affairs department were questioned from the time Trump nominated him in late March. Trump acknowledged on Tuesday that Jackson had an “experience problem.”
The agency, which has 350,000 employees and runs 1,700 facilities that serve more than 9 million veterans a year, has long faced criticism for the quality of its care and the bureaucracy that veterans encounter. In total, it oversees healthcare and benefits for about 20 million military veterans.
It has been led by an acting secretary since late March. Trump fired former VA Secretary David Shulkin after concerns about unauthorized travel expenses.
Even after his hearing was postponed, Jackson had continued to hold meetings with senators on Capitol Hill.
“I can answer the questions. I’m looking forward to rescheduling the hearing and answering everyone’s questions,” Jackson told reporters after meeting with Republican Senator Jerry Moran on Tuesday.
Moran told reporters Jackson had denied having done anything wrong.
The Senate’s calendar might not work in Jackson’s favor. There appeared to be little chance the committee would hold a confirmation hearing this week. On Saturday, Congress begins a nine-day recess, which is a long time for any embattled presidential nominee to be in limbo.
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Susan Cornwell Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Steve Holland, Amanda Becker, Doina Chiacu, David Alexander; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Chris Reese)