The Negligent Nomination of Ronny Jackson

The president’s pick to be secretary of veterans affairs stands accused of misconduct, but with a proper vetting process he would never have been in this position anyway.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

For the third time in four months, Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson is at the center of a surprising report.

The first time came in January, when Jackson, the White House physician, announced that President Trump was in excellent physical and mental health, offering an endorsement so effusive that some were led to question Jackson’s judgment.

The second came in March, when President Trump fired Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and announced that he would nominate Jackson to succeed him. Though Jackson is a flag officer in the Navy, he had never run anything nearly as large and complicated as the federal government’s second-largest bureaucracy.

The third came Monday night, with a series of vague reports about “allegations” against Jackson that threatened to slow down or derail his nomination. Senators were tight-lipped about what they might mean, including an elegantly tautological comment from Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, who said the allegations were troubling “only if true.” Since then, a few new details have emerged. CBS News and The New York Times report the allegations include a hostile work environment in the White House medical office, drinking on the job, and overprescribing medications.

These are serious allegations, but they are so far entirely unproven. Nonetheless, a confirmation hearing scheduled for Wednesday has been postponed.

Though it is not unheard of for damaging information to emerge about a nominee during the confirmation process, presidential administrations have in place a vetting process for reviewing candidates before they are nominated, to ensure that people who might have damaging items in their pasts are either not nominated or are prepared to effectively parry any questions.

In the Trump administration, this has broken down repeatedly. Jackson was reportedly not vetted in any serious way by the White House, and even if had been, the vetting process under this president has repeatedly failed, with the office that vets nominees understaffed and populated with inexperienced employees—some of whom would not pass a vetting process themselves.

Jackson’s nomination came about abruptly. Shulkin was under fire for ethics violations, and Trump decided to remove him suddenly, reportedly over the objections of staffers who wanted a more deliberate process. To replace him, Trump chose someone who was directly in his orbit and he knew; someone he’d seen speak effectively for him in public, in announcing the medical results; and someone who, as an active-duty military officer, was ill-positioned and -inclined to say no to the president of the United States. (This has been a favorite tactic for the president in filling other roles.)

That gave no time to review Jackson’s past. Perhaps Trump assumed that the military would not have promoted Jackson if his past were not clean as a whistle. Yet anyone with a passing familiarity with recent scandals would know that the military, like any large organization, is not immune to bad behavior and cover-ups. The sense of decorum, order, and camaraderie may in fact produce a tendency to sweep issues out of sight.

If the White House didn’t do its prep work ahead of the Jackson announcement, it hasn’t caught up since then, either. The Washington Post reports:

The administration has not put its full weight behind his nomination, according to people familiar with the matter, appointing mid-level aides to oversee Jackson’s briefing by VA experts and sending a junior media aide from the White House to help him make the rounds on Capitol Hill. With the recent departure of Darin Selnick, the White House’s most seasoned expert on veterans’ issues, Trump has few aides with deep knowledge of how the agency works.

Jackson’s surprise stall-out is not the only example of a vetting failure—it’s not even the only one this week. On Monday, Secretary of State-designee Mike Pompeo barely managed to scrape through through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with an endorsement, and he faces a tight vote in the broader Senate. Senators said Pompeo could not answer basic questions about the administration’s foreign policy, and the government also allowed multiple, inaccurate claims that he had fought in the Gulf War to go uncorrected.

Meanwhile, opposition is growing to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who is engulfed in so many scandals it’s now hard to keep track of them. Even Senator James Inhofe, a Republican from Pruitt’s own state of Oklahoma, said he was troubled by a report about Pruitt’s dealings as state attorney general.

In fact, Trump nominees for major offices who didn’t face difficulties are almost rarer than those who did. Andy Puzder had to withdraw his nomination for labor secretary. Ben Carson and Betsy DeVos both showed a lack of familiarity with the work of the departments they were appointed to lead. Senators accused Jeff Sessions of misleading them. Wilbur Ross didn’t disclose all of his investments. Other nominees have struggled since; Tom Price was forced to resign as secretary of health and human services. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is under fire for his travel plans.

One problem is that, as the Post reported in March, the Presidential Personnel Office, which looks into nominees’ pasts, isn’t fully staffed, and those who are working there are young, inexperienced, and have spotty resumes of their own.

The Jackson nomination so far shows the president failing doubly to learn his lesson from the previous problems with nominees: He hasn’t fixed the vetting office, and at the same time bypassed it in choosing Jackson. The whole thing is a self-inflicted wound for the Trump administration. Trump could have waited to fire Shulkin. He could have picked a successor through a standard process. Failing that, he could have vetted Jackson before announcing him. (Perhaps he feared that such a process would leak to the press. Perhaps his fear was well-founded.)

If the wound is self-inflicted, Jackson and the nation’s veterans are the sad collateral damage. Although Jackson is well-liked by most who have come in contact with him (the new allegations notwithstanding), there’s no indication that he has the experience or skills required to wrestle the VA. It’s an enormous, complicated beast, and politicians of both parties agree it’s in dire need of reform, though they disagree on what shape that reform should take. The last two secretaries have both struggled to make that happen, and one of them (Shulkin) was an experienced health-care executive, while his predecessor (Bob McDonald) had been the CEO of Procter and Gamble.

Jackson should probably never have been nominated to be secretary. Now there are two possible outcomes. One is that Jackson’s nomination fails or he withdraws, in which case his personal flaws will have been unnecessarily revealed for all the world to see, simply because he obeyed an order from a boss who didn’t bother to vet him or consider whether he was equipped for the job. The second is that Jackson survives the allegations and is confirmed—in which case the VA will be led by a man unprepared for the job, and veterans will likely suffer.