RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Today, the White House physician was supposed to answer questions from Congress about why he is the right guy to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Well, that hearing has been postponed indefinitely. Lawmakers are chasing allegations about Doctor Ronny Jackson's behavior in the workplace - the workplace, in this case, being the White House. Montana Senator Jon Tester is the top Democrat on the Veterans' Affairs Committee, and he tells Ari Shapiro of our own program All Things Considered that the allegations against Jackson include improperly dispensing prescription drugs while traveling, and being drunk while on duty traveling with the president and creating a toxic work environment. Tester said more than 20 current and former members of the military who worked with Jackson came forward. Talking with reporters, President Trump said he supports Jackson and even at one point said that he wishes he was Jackson, but he does not know why Jackson would put up with the criticism.
MARTIN: OK, let's ask a couple of people who might know the answer to that - we'll see - NPR Veterans Affairs correspondent Quil Lawrence and national political correspondent Mara Liasson.
Hey, Mara. Hi, Quil.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel. Good morning, Steve.
MARTIN: All right, Quil, I'm going to start with you first. What more do we know at this point about the allegations against Jackson?
LAWRENCE: Well, those - the drug prescriptions - it sounds like he was liberally handing out sleeping pills - the kind of things that help with jet lag, like Ambien - maybe handing them out a little too casually on some of the oversea trips - overseas trips he took over a dozen years at the White House. The alleged drunkenness also sounds like these incidents allegedly happened while he was on these long trips. The last category of allegations, really, is that he has an explosive temper, that he made his subordinates feel on edge. Now, I should say, I spoke to another former White House physician from the Clinton administration, also a Navy vet, Dr. Robert Darling. He's known Jackson for decades. He says he thought these charges are not at all credible. He thought they were made up maybe by disgruntled employees. But Republicans and Democrats on the - in the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee have asked the White House to explain all these allegations, which, as you say, Tester said came from 20 sources who approached the committee.
LAWRENCE: Jackson has said he intends to fight.
MARTIN: So Mara, I mean, we got to point out that Jackson has served as physician in the White House under three presidents, as chief White House doctor under Barack Obama, so why didn't any of these concerns come up before now if they're legit?
LIASSON: These concerns didn't come up because mostly, we've heard from Dr. Jackson's patients. White House staffs current and previous really liked him. These complaints are coming from people who worked with and for Jackson. And, you know, yesterday, President Trump made it absolutely clear he still supports Jackson, met with him in the Oval Office. President Trump chose Jackson because of how much he liked him. He often chooses people...
MARTIN: Personally just likes the guy.
LIASSON: Yes - often chooses people he's comfortable with, even though yesterday, in a press conference, he admitted that Jackson had a, quote, "experience problem," although, he added, no one has the experience to run such a huge agency as the VA. And in that press conference, he said several times, if it were me, I wouldn't go through with this; the decision is up to Jackson, but why do you need this? I wouldn't continue.
MARTIN: Right. It sounded like he was trying to give him a way to save face.
LIASSON: Yes, he was...
MARTIN: ...By bowing out.
LIASSON: It sounded like he was practically inviting him to withdraw. But later in the day, the two of them met. Jackson said he wanted to continue the nomination. The president said, fine; I support you. And by the evening, White House officials were releasing a lot of supporting documents showing that Jackson had gotten glowing reviews from not just President Trump, but President Obama, and a statement saying they believe he is being railroaded by a bitter ex-colleague.
INSKEEP: But as - well, a bitter ex-colleague singular, but we heard about 20 different statements. As to why now, we don't really know the motivations of the reported 20 people, but this is how it happens, isn't it? When someone is in a prominent position and then is going for a more prominent position, it tends to bring concerns out. And there were already concerns about whether Jackson was right for the job.
LIASSON: Yes, but if they had vetted him carefully, you'd think that they would have known about this before.
MARTIN: Which raises the bigger questions. I mean, this is not the first time that the Trump administration has gotten into some hot water here with people who they want to serve in their administration. There's something going on in the vetting system.
LAWRENCE: Right. And there are two issues here. There is all these allegations that - according to the Veterans' Affairs Committee, they were approached by these people who were concerned. But besides that, there was already a concern just about Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson's ability to run an organization like the VA, which has 360,000 employees. People were not talking about any issues with his character or behavior before. This guy is an Iraq vet. He's a combat surgeon. As you said, glowing reviews from three presidents - but who was qualified...
MARTIN: No management experience, Quil?
LAWRENCE: Yeah, he had run the White House medical staff of several dozen. Now we're talking about an organization that has a budget of $187 billion. It's eaten up three VA secretaries in the last four years, and those were people who had run large organizations. And the stakes really couldn't be higher for the 9 million veterans who use the VA, not to mention every congressperson involved in this because everyone has a veteran in their district.
MARTIN: What's going on at the VA right now? I mean, what - let's assume Ronny Jackson - that there is some path to confirmation for him. What kind of - what's the state of the agency he'd assume?
LAWRENCE: Well, it's been in limbo, really, since January when the previous VA secretary, David Shulkin, lost White House support and was later let go. There are huge issues waiting on Capitol Hill. Some of them have ready-to-go, bipartisan solutions that are just waiting for a new VA secretary to sign, things like streamlining the way the VA pays for private care outside the VA system. And that sounds like mumbo-jumbo, but I'm talking about - you're talking about veterans who are waiting for care. Sometimes they're in pain waiting for this care. And this is a fix that's waiting for new leadership just to push it through.
MARTIN: Mara, in - real quick, does he have a chance?
LIASSON: I think he has a chance. These allegations haven't been proven. They're going to get a fair hearing. The president says he's going to fight for him. But there's no doubt that his nomination is in trouble.
MARTIN: NPR's Mara Liasson and NPR's Quil Lawrence for us this morning. Hey, thanks so much, you two. We appreciate it.
LIASSON: Thank you.
LAWRENCE: Thank you.
MARTIN: All right, we're going to turn now to the president's travel ban, which goes before the U.S. Supreme Court today.
INSKEEP: Yeah, it's a challenge to the third version of the president's efforts to keep out travelers from certain countries. This all grows out of a campaign promise to ban all Muslim travelers.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.
INSKEEP: So after he was inaugurated, twice, the president imposed a ban on majority-Muslim countries - seven of them. And twice, courts have blocked this. A third, revised version of the ban is now in effect. In some recent reporting, we've met people fleeing the war in Yemen who'd been handed papers saying they were denied U.S. visas because of this ban. It is in effect. Now the court considers Presidential Proclamation 9645 and whether it's legal and constitutional.
MARTIN: OK, Amy Howe is a reporter who covers the Supreme Court, and she's with us now to help unpack this very significant case.
Hey, Amy. Thanks for being here.
AMY HOWE: Good morning, and thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Explain the central question that the court is going to have to grapple with in this.
HOWE: The central question really is, can the president do this? Can he do it? Is this something that federal immigration law allows him to do, and is it something that the Constitution allows him to do?
MARTIN: How are both sides expected to address this in their arguments? I mean, as I understand it, this is about whether or not the president's statements in the campaign - when he explicitly said, hey, we should ban Muslims from coming into the U.S. - whether or not that can be taken as the intent behind this ban.
HOWE: That is a question that is lurking. And it's really the first time that the Supreme Court has had to deal so directly with president that - a president's comments on social media. The government is likely to argue that this is not a knee-jerk reaction, that this is about national security. The government is going to point to a process that it's described at length in its brief. It says that we had several different federal agencies study - undertake a study to decide whether or not we're getting enough information from foreign governments to allow us to make good decisions about whether or not we should allow nationals from that country to come to the United States, and we decided we weren't getting enough information from the eight countries that are listed in the president's September 2017 order, and so the president decided that it was in the best interest of national security to put a halt to travel to the United States from people - by people from those countries.
The challenger's argument is that the president has a lot of authority under federal immigration law, but this just goes too far. It suspends 150 - it prohibits 150 million people from coming to the country indefinitely, and it singles out Muslims. What - you know, this is essentially old wine in new bottles. The president has repeatedly said that he wants to block Muslims from coming into the United States, and that's the intent behind this, even if it doesn't do so directly.
MARTIN: What are you going to be watching for to give you a sign as to how the court might rule?
HOWE: We're going to be watching - of course, you know, it's a bit of a cliche - Justice Anthony Kennedy, who's often the swing vote on these issues. We're going to be looking at what the justices say about social media. Remember that this is a historic case, but they're also making laws that are going to govern future cases, and so they're going to want to be able to draw a line to look at things that are really, really important but not go back, you know, 10 years to what someone said when they were in college.
MARTIN: Right. Reporter Amy Howe of the site Howe on the Court. Amy, thank you so much.
HOWE: Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF ORGONE'S "CYDELINES")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. 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.