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Trump Defends VA Nominee But Suggests He Might Prefer To Withdraw


President Trump's pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, Ronny Jackson, may not end up leading the agency after all. Twenty members of the U.S. military have come forward to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and accused Jackson of overprescribing drugs, drinking excessively and creating a hostile work environment. Yesterday, President Trump seemed to be opening the door for Jackson to withdraw.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don't want to put a man through - who's not a political person - I don't want to put a man through a process like this. It's too ugly and too disgusting. So we'll see what happens. He'll make a decision.

MARTIN: Joining us now is Hogan Gidley. He's special assistant to the president and deputy press secretary. Hogan, thanks for being back on the show.

HOGAN GIDLEY: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: So Senator Jon Tester was on All Things Considered last night, and he told Ari Shapiro that Jackson is accused of prescribing sleeping pills to staff on overseas trips pretty liberally and of getting drunk on these same presidential trips. Does that jibe with your understanding of the allegations against him?

GIDLEY: No, it does not. Dr. Jackson deserves a fair hearing. And we're not going to write him off in any way before his hearings, and quite frankly, neither should members of Congress. He is an honorable man who has done this country an incredible service, not only on the battlefield but in surgery as well, saved countless lives. You know, he's kind of the perfect mix of medicine and also the military to run the department. He knows what it's like to be on the frontlines. He, himself, serves in the military, has done countless tours, been in life-or-death situations not just in combat but also when he has to make snap decisions within a surgery room, and he's done that.

MARTIN: Let me - I'll ask you about his broader qualifications for the job in a moment. But does that mean that Dr. Jackson has unequivocally denied these allegations to you or to the president?

GIDLEY: Yes, I spoke with Dr. Jackson on this matter. He has denied that vehemently. And look, even Jon Tester had to come out yesterday. I believe he said or tweeted that the FBI background investigation into Ronny Jackson was clean, and there are no issues in the background check whatsoever.

MARTIN: Although you know he has to pay attention when 20 military members come forward and say that he was, quote, "abusive towards staff" and has created this toxic environment, that he was repeatedly drunk while on duty. This is what these service members told Senator Tester and other members of the committee.

GIDLEY: Right. And again, Dr. Jackson has served three presidents as their personal physician. Every one of those presidents has come out and issued some level of support for Dr. Jackson over the years. He has been in the most obviously, close quarters in intimate situations with Republican and Democrat presidents. They've all come out and praised him. So we believe someone like Dr. Jackson is exactly the kind of person we need at the VA to lead and also to clean up some of the issues there.

MARTIN: There is apparently an inspector general report that dates back to 2012 that raised questions about his behavior in the workplace, saying that there is a severe and pervasive lack of trust in his leadership. Was that not something that came to light as the White House vetted him for this nomination?

GIDLEY: Oh, absolutely. We've seen that report. We know exactly what's in it. And, in fact, what it does is it puts the onus on one of Dr. Jackson's colleagues instead. And that's the issue, that it's not Dr. Jackson here that's at fault. It was one of his colleagues. And the independent report you're referencing came in from the outside. It took a look at the situation. It was actually called by Dr. Jackson himself. He was the one who wanted to have this review of the department to make sure there weren't any issues, to say, look, it's obvious that there are some people here who have low morale. Let's figure out why. So they had an independent review, and it came back. And the conclusion of that review was it was actually his colleague...

MARTIN: Arrival in the workplace.

GIDLEY: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Let me ask you...

GIDLEY: So it wasn't anything substantive. It was more attitudes and issues like that that were looked into it. It was - said that it was his colleague, not him.

MARTIN: Let me ask you though, even before these allegations came to light, there were many on Capitol Hill - Democrats and Republicans - who raised questions about his management qualifications. The VA is a huge, huge organization - 350,000 people work there. There is a massive budget. Besides - setting aside these questions about his moral character, what qualifies him for this kind of management position?

GIDLEY: Well, look. The VA is massive. You hit it right on the head. But that's the point. Dr. Jackson marries both military and medicine, OK. That is exactly what you're looking for in someone to go into the VA...

MARTIN: But does he have management experience for an organization of this size?

GIDLEY: Well, the question is, does anyone ever have management experience for an organization of this size?

MARTIN: David Shulkin did, his predecessor.

GIDLEY: He did. He absolutely did. No, he did not, rather, I would say. We've seen what bureaucrats with experience in management have done and done to the VA. We have massive lag times at the VA. And while Shulkin did some positive things, he wasn't moving at the president's pace. He wanted things done better. And there are some serious problems at the VA. The president recognized those, and he wants to put someone in place that he feels can fix those issues.

MARTIN: Let me ask you before I let you go. Another of the president's picks, a man who does lead an agency right now, Scott Pruitt, the head of the EPA, has been dogged by accusations about ethics violations. Yesterday, several Senate Republicans raised concerns about this, including James Inhofe, who is a close friend of Pruitt's, been a longtime ally. Does President Trump still want Scott Pruitt to stay in this job?

GIDLEY: I can tell you that the president and the White House are aware of these issues. And these stories, they raise some serious concerns. There's no question about that. We're looking into those issues and concerns as well.

MARTIN: But that's not a yes.

GIDLEY: Well, I'm just telling you we know what's going on over there. We've seen the reports, and it raises questions. And the EPA, quite frankly, and Mr. Pruitt are going to have to answer those questions in short order.

MARTIN: Hogan Gidley is special assistant to the president and deputy press secretary. Thank you so much for taking the time this morning. We appreciate it.

GIDLEY: Thank you. Have a great day.

MARTIN: You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.