Montana Sen. Jon Tester Weighs In On Delayed Confirmation Hearing For Ronny Jackson
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
This has been a challenging day for Ronny Jackson. He's President Trump's doctor and nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. Today senators on the committee vetting Jackson's nomination said they are evaluating serious allegations about his workplace conduct. In response, President Trump had this to say this afternoon.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He's a man who has just been an extraordinary person - his family, extraordinary success, great doctor, great everything. And he has to listen to the abuse that he has to. I wouldn't if I were him. Actually, in many ways, I'd love to be him. But the fact is I wouldn't do it. I wouldn't do it. What does he need it for?
SHAPIRO: Senator Jon Tester of Montana is the top Democrat on the Veterans Affairs Committee, and he's leading the investigation into these allegations along with the committee's Republican chairman. Senator Tester, welcome to the program.
JON TESTER: It's great to be with you, Ari. Thank you.
SHAPIRO: I want to dig into some detail about what you've learned in your investigation. But to start us off, will you just summarize the main allegations against Dr. Jackson?
TESTER: Well, they fall in three different areas - improper dispensing of prescription drugs, repeatedly drunk while on duty while traveling and creating a toxic work environment.
SHAPIRO: Let's take those one at a time. Improperly prescribing prescription drugs - what kind of prescription drugs are we talking about?
TESTER: Well, most of them are the ones that make you want to sleep and then make you wake up. And these are basically - were doled out. And by the way, we had 20 military folks and retired military folks tell us these stories. These were doled out on overseas trips where there's a lot of time zone changes and were pretty much doled out. You know, if somebody wants to go to sleep, here's a pill.
SHAPIRO: So we're not talking about opioid painkillers or things like that.
TESTER: No, no, no. We're talking about - and there's a name for them, but it's basically the prescription drugs that will put you to sleep and then of course prescription drugs that will wake you back up.
SHAPIRO: And then you also used the word repeatedly drunk on duty. What can you tell us about that?
TESTER: Yeah, well, I mean, once again, it was on travel. And he is the physician for the president. And in the previous administration, we were told stories. There were - he was repeatedly drunk while on duty where his main job was to take care of the most powerful man in the world. That's not acceptable.
SHAPIRO: Senator Jerry Moran, Republican of Kansas, says Dr. Jackson told him during a one-on-one meeting this week that he has never had a drink while on duty. How do you respond to that?
TESTER: Well, all I can tell you is that we didn't initiate this discussion. This discussion came when we were notified by folks that work with Admiral Jackson, folks in the military about behaviors that had happened. And we were - just followed up with as many leads as we could get. And the leads took us to this spot.
SHAPIRO: All right, I do want to ask more about where these allegations came from. But first, the third accusation is that he oversaw a hostile work environment.
SHAPIRO: What does that phrase mean in this context?
TESTER: Well, I think it's - I mean, some of the exact words that were used by the folks who we talked to were abusive towards staff, very explosive personality, belittles the folks underneath him - staff that he oversaw, screamed towards staff, basically creating an environment where the staff felt that they need to walk on eggshells when around him.
SHAPIRO: So we're talking for the most part about verbal abuse.
TESTER: Yes, correct.
SHAPIRO: And did you hear that he was the instigator of that hostile work environment or a participant in it?
TESTER: No, I think that it was pretty clear that he was the person that was creating the environment.
SHAPIRO: Let's talk more about where these allegations come from. You said more than 20 current and former military personnel who worked with him, worked under him.
SHAPIRO: Are you confident that they are not politically motivated?
TESTER: Well, I mean, these are military personnel that have come forward that are absolutely worried about the potential reaction that Admiral Jackson could have on this because of his personality and previous actions towards staff. And so I will tell you that I think that we heard the same story from enough people repeatedly that there's a lot of smoke there.
And I think that - I think it takes a tremendous amount of courage for somebody in the military to come forth when they know that if their name gets out, their job could be on the line. And it's one of the reasons I really don't want to get too specific because the White House Medical Corps is a pretty small outfit. And you get too specific, and they will know who's come forward. And then retribution may well happen.
SHAPIRO: Was there any real-time documentation to support this, or is it all verbal recollections?
TESTER: It's verbal so far.
SHAPIRO: OK. I know you haven't spoken recently with Dr. Jackson, but you have spoken with White House chief of staff John Kelly. What can you tell us about that conversation?
TESTER: Yeah, I had a conversation with chief of staff Kelly yesterday. Look; he approached it from the standpoint that - I mean, this is their nominee, so I do not hold anything against John Kelly. I think he's a good man. But he said, you know, these are just claims, and there's no truth to it. And my comment to him was, we need to get to the bottom of it, and we're working very hard to get to the bottom of it because these are military personnel that deserve to be heard.
And I just told him, you know, it's my job as a United States senator, and it is the Senate's job to properly vet these folks and determine whether they're fit to be secretary, whether it's the VA or any other agency. In this particular case, we need somebody in the VA that isn't going to come in with a whole bunch of baggage because there's a lot of work to be done in the VA. Our military men and women - we've been at war for 17 years. The Vietnam vets are getting older. The list goes on and on and on, on and on and on about what has to be done out there in the VA to make it meet the 21st century challenges they face. So my sentiment to John was - John Kelly was - I said, we're going to do our job, our constitutional duty here. We're going to get to the bottom of this, find out what the facts are and move forward.
And the other thing I would say is this is bipartisan in nature. It's - you know, we - I visited with the chairman of the committee this morning. He was very concerned about all the things that have come up over the last week and the number of people that have brought them forth. And I think that's the reason we put the hearing off until probably after we get back after this next week when we're out.
SHAPIRO: That's Senator Jon Tester of Montana, the top Democrat on the Veterans Affairs Committee. He's overseeing the investigation into allegations that have emerged against Ronny Jackson, President Trump's nominee to lead the Veterans Affairs Department. Thanks so much.
TESTER: Thank you, Ari.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.