RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Trump has to move to his plan B for leadership at the Department of Veterans Affairs, although we're not sure what plan B is yet. His first choice to take over at the VA was his White House doctor, Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson. In recent days, though, more than 20 military members came forward to complain about Jackson's workplace behavior. He's accused of overprescribing medications and being intoxicated on the job, as well as creating a toxic work culture. In a statement released this morning, Jackson rejected all these claims but said his nomination has become a distraction to President Trump, so he's withdrawing his name from consideration.
In a moment, we'll hear from Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat who sits on the Veterans Affairs Committee, to get his take on this development. But first, we turn to NPR's Quil Lawrence, who covers veterans affairs for NPR. Hey, Quil.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Rachel.
MARTIN: Jackson is not conceding that he did anything wrong here, right?
LAWRENCE: Right. And this has been this sort of cognitive dissonance all along where you had these 23 people who came forward to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to make a whole bunch of allegations. And then you had people who'd worked with Jackson for years, including three presidents he's worked with, saying that they couldn't possibly believe these allegations and supporting him. So when these specific allegations came out yesterday, they were kind of shocking, just a long list...
MARTIN: Remind us of some of the more egregious ones.
LAWRENCE: Right, I mean, loose prescription of things as powerful as Percocet, you know, an opioid painkiller, that - there was just large supplies of this kept on hand, drunkenness on the job when he was supposed to be attending the president, allegedly drunken driving after a Secret Service going away party, and then all of these quotes about it being a toxic work environment, about Admiral Jackson being the sort of leader who would kiss up and then kick down and kept his superiors happy while mistreating his subordinates. Again, he denies all of this.
MARTIN: Yet President Trump, even this morning, still out defending his personal doctor.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX & FRIENDS")
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He would have done a great job - a tremendous heart.
TRUMP: You know, these are all false accusations that were made. These are false. They're trying to destroy a man. By the way, I did say welcome to Washington. Welcome to the swamp.
MARTIN: So that was the president who had called in this morning to the Fox News show "Fox & Friends." So clearly, President Trump, even though he had given him kind of an out, told Ronny Jackson, hey, I don't blame you if you don't want to go through this confirmation process, he's out defending him this morning.
LAWRENCE: Yes. And this is all sort of showing what people in the vets community, who are used to things being done by a certain protocol, they're used to being able to approve VA nominees unanimously. And that's done by carefully vetting them beforehand, making sure everyone's OK with anything that might come up. This is what people in the vets space are saying wasn't done this time, and that's what allowed this ugly fight to come out in public instead of being settled before nominating anyone.
MARTIN: OK, Quil, stay with us. We're going to listen now. I just spoke moments ago with Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat who sits on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. Let's listen to our conversation.
Thanks so much for being with us this morning, Senator.
RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: Yesterday, you were calling for more time, to give Ronny Jackson a fair shot. But now, with these - the new details about the allegations, do you think that Rear Admiral Jackson has made the right decision?
BLUMENTHAL: He's made the right decision because there was really no realistic path forward for his nomination. Putting aside his lack of experience as a manager, which could have been fatal, he would have been a secretary of the Veterans Administration with a ton of baggage. And the administration really bungled the review and vetting process and then fumbled its defense of him, leaving him so vulnerable and doubtful in the eyes of our military men and women, our veterans who should be served by the VA.
MARTIN: What do you make of the fact that there was this inspector general's report that came out in 2012 where some of these behaviors were revealed and this happened during the administration of Barack Obama?
BLUMENTHAL: There would have been a searching and penetrating investigation, including that IG report of 2012 which indicated management issues. By all accounts, this admiral was someone who kissed up and kicked down as the saying goes. There were four FBI reports, none of them provided to members of the Veterans Affairs Committee, so the administration did a tremendous disservice to our veterans and to Admiral Jackson in its bungling of this nomination. And unfortunately, this process reflects a broader pattern. Almost 25 of its top-level nominees have been withdrawn because of disclosures and revelations of wrongdoing or ethical problems.
MARTIN: What do you see as being the most severe repercussion of this? Clearly, the VA suffers because it doesn't have a leader in this moment.
BLUMENTHAL: Here is maybe the most important point to make about this whole episode - military men and women came forward risking their careers to report prescription drug misuse, drunkenness and hostile work environment when they face potential retaliation. They stepped forward to protect their fellow veterans, and their courage ought to inspire us to be very demanding on the next nominee to be proposed and hopefully will inspire the president to be more serious about the person he picks.
MARTIN: Let me ask you. You know that for this president it is important that he have someone that he has a personal relationship with, which is why he chose Ronny Jackson for this job despite concerns about management experience. So taking that into consideration, can you conjure up a couple of names of people who would be both qualified and be people whom Donald Trump would trust?
BLUMENTHAL: Absolutely. There are very distinguished and respected military leaders, now retired, who could do this job with extraordinary ability, character, ethical integrity and really the respect of our veterans. I'm not going to suggest specific names because my fear is they would be automatically put on the no list by Donald Trump simply because someone has come to him, particularly a Democrat, with those names. But there are a number, and I will be suggesting them privately through the appropriate sources.
MARTIN: Dr. Ronny Jackson is now still currently the White House doctor. Do you think he should retain that job, or should there be some further investigation as to whether or not he serves that out?
BLUMENTHAL: There should be an investigation of some of these allegations. Remember, they came from more than 23 currently serving or retired military people who have worked with Admiral Jackson. Each of the allegations was corroborated by a second source, and some of them were confirmed by The Washington Post and other media. They were non-partisan, non-political people, and they require accountability. But the proposed nomination of this Navy rear admiral was a disservice to our veterans and to him because it has exposed him and his family to this kind of public attention that certainly ill-serves his reputation, his standing, in the long term.
MARTIN: Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Thanks for your time this morning, sir.
BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.
MARTIN: NPR's Quil Lawrence is still with us. He covers veterans issues. Quil, what are veterans groups saying about all this?
LAWRENCE: Here's a statement from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America that I think embodies a lot of what people are saying. They said, our community is exhausted by the unnecessary and seemingly never-ending drama. VA's reputation is damaged. Staff is demoralized. Momentum is stalled, and the future is shockingly unclear.
The VFW came out with a statement saying the VA is a national treasure, and whoever is selected to lead the department next must be proven an effective leader with management experience. They're asking to be consulted on the next choice, but they're not counting on it.
MARTIN: We heard Senator Blumenthal say that he thinks there should be further investigation as to whether or not Dr. Jackson should keep his current job as White House doctor. Do we know if that kind of inquiry is happening? I mean, is he likely to keep his job?
LAWRENCE: Well, he's still an active duty admiral in the Navy, so there could be automatic investigations and consequences triggered by the fact that he - under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and consequences for him. That's unclear, whether he'll be able to stay in his post after this, especially with apparently many of his staff willing to say these things about him.
MARTIN: So let alone we don't know at this point if any charges could be brought, any federal charges, based on in particular the misuse of those opioids.
LAWRENCE: Right. And if these are investigated and there isn't any evidence that's found, then that will be sort of another repercussion of this that maybe what - were these all baseless accusations, which is what he said.
MARTIN: NPR's Quil Lawrence - he covers veterans issues for NPR. We've been talking this morning about the news - Ronny Jackson withdrawing his name as President Trump's pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. Hey, Quil, thanks so much.
LAWRENCE: Thank you, Rachel.
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