Analysis

White House 'Candyman' Ronny Jackson's VA bid was doomed by failed vetting

Turns out the Candyman can’t. Not with allegations of drinking on the job. Of wrecking a government vehicle while intoxicated. Of screaming at underlings. And of overprescribing opioids. Trump nominee Ronny Jackson withdrew his name early Thursday.

President’s physician accused of drinking on the job, handing out drugs 'like candy'

Dr. Ronny Jackson sits on Capitol Hill on April 16. Jackson has abandoned his pursuit of a Senate confirmation to become secretary of veterans affairs. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

Turns out the "Candyman" can't.

Not with allegations of drinking on the job. Of wrecking a government vehicle while intoxicated. Of screaming at underlings. And of recklessly dishing out opioids.

White House presidential physician Dr. Ronny Jackson has lost his pursuit of a Senate confirmation to become the next secretary of veterans affairs. Making matters worse, he could also lose his job overseeing the health care of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Jackson confirmed early Thursday he will not proceed amid the controversy.

"While I will forever be grateful for the trust and confidence President Trump has placed in me by giving me this opportunity, I am regretfully withdrawing my nomination to be Secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs," Jackson said in a statement.

Had he been properly vetted, experts say, Jackson wouldn't be under fire in the first place. As many as 20 whistleblowers allege he was "repeatedly drunk while on duty," and "handing out prescriptions like candy," Sen. Jon Tester said in recent media interviews.

President Donald Trump, with Jackson in January, stood by his physician as his choice to lead Veterans Affairs. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

Reports on Wednesday citing a Democratic summary of Jackson's alleged misconduct say that he "mishandled" a large supply of the prescription opioid Percocet and also "wrecked a government vehicle" while intoxicated. The alleged behaviour involved distribution of prescription drugs, Tester said, earning Jackson the White House moniker "the Candyman."

Jackson denies accusations he drove drunk. That didn't assuage the concerns of Jim Pfiffner, an expert on federal appointments, as he learned about the latest allegations Wednesday during a phone interview.

"Good God," said Pfiffner, who served during the 1980s in the Director's Office of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, a human-resources agency that oversees political appointments.

"This is a classic case of failing to vet people. It's standard operating procedure to look for anything, any crimes, anything that might be embarrassing to the president. I don't see how they'll be able to keep him on."

Speaking with Fox & Friends on Thursday morning, Trump said he believes Jackson "would have done a great job," but blamed Democrats for railroading the nomination.

Trump also said he has another candidate in mind, someone "with political capability," to head Veterans Affairs.

Medical licence in jeopardy

Jackson will bear responsibility for failing to ascend to the president's cabinet. But people familiar with the Senate appointments process also blame what seems to be sloppy or non-existent screening by Trump administration officials.

Beyond costing Jackson the veterans affairs post, the lack of due process has led to troubling accusations that are threatening Jackson's medical licence and career.

"He's toast," said Paul Light, who ran the bipartisan Presidential Appointment Project at the Brookings Institute.

"If Dr. Jackson can survive in the White House, which is doubtful, he's got to be thinking now: 'What am I going to do next year? How am I going to recover from this and do this gracefully?' I think Dr. Jackson should start thinking of an exit strategy."

Former president Barack Obama walks with Jackson, right, to Marine One in 2016. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

Accounts of Jackson's alleged misconduct include an overseas trip during the Obama administration in which Jackson allegedly became so intoxicated in his hotel room that White House staff needing his expertise were unable to rouse him. Staffers reportedly retrieved necessary medical supplies without waking him.

"If you are drunk and something happens with the president, it's very difficult to go in and treat the president," Sen. Tester told CNN.

The challenge before Jackson is how he can reconcile his alleged dereliction of duty with his job overseeing the physical health of the most powerful man in the world.

Light noted the Senate usually defers to the president to appoint cabinet members, regardless of policy objections, unless something "egregious" or unlawful can be found in a nominee's background. Drunk driving would certainly count, as would potentially illegal prescription of opioids.

"He's being accused of having been a distributor of prescription drugs during a period when we're dealing with a dramatic opioid crisis," Light said. "The allegation here is a violation of medical ethics and practice."

Jackson became Trump's pick to head the second-largest federal agency after reportedly flattering the president in January during a televised briefing touting Trump's "incredible genes" and weight.

Trump has routinely said he surrounds himself with only "the best people."

But choosing Jackson to head Veterans Affairs fits into a larger pattern of the president's "carelessness" when it comes to West Wing personnel, said Chris Edelson, assistant professor of government at  American University.

"Trump doesn't look carefully at people," he said. "Jackson may be one example of that."

Vetting might have uncovered embattled Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt's history of misspending and former White House staff secretary Rob Porter's domestic assault accusations, Edelson noted.

The latest allegations aside, critics of Jackson had already questioned his fitness for the job, given his lack of managerial experience. Veterans Affairs is an immense bureaucratic undertaking, with a workforce of more than 300,000 people and a $200-billion budget.

With accusations mounting on Tuesday, Trump appeared to give Jackson an exit route, telling reporters who asked about his shaky Senate confirmation process: "I wouldn't do it, if I were him."

Jackson arrives for a meeting with Senator Jon Tester on Capitol Hill on April 17, before the allegations of unprofessional behaviour surfaced. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

The doctor should never have been nominated, said John Weaver, the former chief strategist for Republican presidential candidate John McCain. Nor should Jackson have accepted the nomination, Weaver said.

"This is what happens when you nominate people based on their appearance on Fox & Friends, or because someone said you weighed 40 pounds less than you actually do."

Weaver believes that the allegations against Jackson, an active-duty navy admiral, will "force him to leave the navy," if prove true.

Typical vetting for cabinet nominations involves detailed questionnaires, financial disclosures, ethics probes and background checks by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Questionnaires in the Obama years asked about gun ownership, while previous administrations asked about histories of smoking pot and the hiring of undocumented immigrants.

It's up to the nominee to spare him or herself what's coming and withdraw.— Paul Light, expert on political appointments

The FBI portion isn't an investigation for an indictment. It might involve asking neighbours and third parties about the nominee's possible suspicious behaviour and potential enemies. The Senate reviews the material.

"The FBI goes out and collects rumours," Light said. "They put it in a file and the Senate can ask them about it face-to-face, is it true? And it's up to the nominee to spare him or herself what's coming and withdraw."

The process could take six months to complete for some appointments and goes through the Office of the Personnel and the White House Counsel's Office, said Chris Whipple, author of The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency.

Whipple places some of the blame on chief of staff John Kelly's apparent failure to dissuade Trump from making what seemed like a spur-of-the-moment pick to head Veterans Affairs.

"It's a total breakdown in process; it's a breakdown in the one area that Kelly said he was going to focus on, which was to make the trains run on time," he said. "Clearly, the trains are off the tracks."

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.