The White House is defending President Trump’s choice to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, even as questions swirl around the nominee, White House physician Dr. Ronny Jackson.
“Dr. Jackson deserves a fair hearing, and we are not going to write him off in any way before his hearing, and quite frankly neither should members of Congress,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told Rachel Martin on NPR’s Morning Edition Wednesday.
Gidley said the FBI background investigation into Jackson “was clean and there are no issues in the background check whatsoever.”
Jackson’s confirmation hearing, originally scheduled for Wednesday, was indefinitely postponed. And even as Trump defended his nominee, he suggested Jackson might prefer to withdraw.
“What do you need it for?” Trump said he told Jackson Tuesday. “I don’t want to put a man through a process like this. It’s too ugly and too disgusting.”
Jackson, a Navy rear admiral who has served as personal physician to both Trump and former President Barack Obama, was already facing tough questions about whether he had the managerial experience to lead the VA.
Then, late last week, complaints surfaced about Jackson drinking on duty during foreign trips, improperly dispensing prescription medication, and overseeing a hostile work environment in the White House medical unit, according to Sen. John Tester, D-Mont., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
The complaints came from more than 20 active duty and retired military personnel who had worked for Jackson, Tester said.
“There’s a lot of smoke there,” Tester told All Things Considered‘s Ari Shapiro about the as-yet-unsubstantiated allegations.
Veterans committee member Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, told Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition Wednesday that “what’s concerning for this committee is the kind of information that has come forward, and we need to find out more about his ability to handle the second-largest agency in the entire government.”
Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican on the committee, has said Jackson denied ever having a drink while on duty.
Reporters caught up with Jackson on Capitol Hill Tuesday on his way to Moran’s office. “I was looking forward to the hearing,” Jackson said in video captured by MSNBC. “Kind of disappointed that it’s been postponed, but I’m looking forward to getting it rescheduled and answering everybody’s questions.”
Asked whether he “categorically denied” the allegations against him, he said, “I’m looking forward to the hearings, so we can sit down and I can explain everything to everyone and answer all the senators’ questions.”
Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Tester sent a letter to Trump on Tuesday requesting additional documentation related to Jackson’s tenure as the president’s doctor and his role leading the White House medical team.
The letter requested information about rumored Pentagon inspector general reports said to detail allegations into Jackson’s conduct.
The White House says Jackson has never been the subject of an Inspector General’s report and pointed to glowing performance reviews he received from both Trump and Obama.
“Ronny’s positive impact cannot be overstated,” Obama wrote in 2015. “He is a tremendous asset to the entire White House team.”
Trump echoed that sentiment last year, writing, “Dr. Jackson is a great doctor + leader — ‘2 star material,’ ” in bold sharpie.
Jackson has served in the medical unit since 2006, caring for three presidents. He specializes in emergency medicine and served with a battlefield surgical unit in Iraq.
An administration official suggested the complaints may be fallout from Jackson’s rivalry with another doctor in the White House Medical Unit dating back to 2012.
The rivalry between Jackson and Dr. Jeffrey Kuhlman prompted a “command climate assessment” of the medical unit that year, which found low morale.
“The staff characterized the working environment as being caught between parents going through a bitter divorce with one parent undermining and talking bad about the other,” according to a report of the findings.
The White House says it was Jackson who requested that assessment and hinted Kuhlman is behind the more recent complaints. Jackson “will certainly not be railroaded by a bitter ex-colleague who was removed from his job,” said a White House statement.
Trump caught many observers off guard when he picked Jackson to replace ousted VA Secretary David Shulkin. Unlike Shulkin, who had managed a large medical organization before joining the VA, Jackson has never overseen more than 75 people.
“I know there’s an experience problem because of lack of experience,” Trump admitted Tuesday. “But he is a man who has just been an extraordinary person. His family, extraordinary success. Great doctor. Great everything.”
Administration spokesman Gidley said, “The question is, does anyone ever have management experience for an organization this size?”
Jackson is also a blank slate on one of the key policy questions facing the VA: what role the private sector should play in providing veterans health care. Many of the large veterans service organizations are wary of what they see as a push towards privatization. Shulkin complained that he was fired, in part, for resisting that push.
Trump insisted he would stand behind his nominee, even as he suggested the political battle might not be worth it.
“I wouldn’t do it,” Trump also said Tuesday. “What does he need it for? To be abused by a bunch of politicians that aren’t thinking nicely about our country? I really don’t think, personally, he should do it. But it’s totally his — I would stand behind him — totally his decision.”
The president met Tuesday in the Oval Office with Jackson, a White House official confirmed to NPR.
The official, who declined to speak on the record, said Jackson wants to keep fighting and that Trump supports his decision.
Former Obama administration staffers also defended Jackson’s character, even as they questioned whether he is the right choice for the VA job. One former Obama staffer who spent a lot of time around Jackson on official trips said he had never seen evidence that Jackson drank while on duty. The former staffer said that Jackson and other White House doctors provided Ambien, a sleep medication, when staffers requested them while on overnight flights to Europe and Asia.
NPR national politics correspondent Mara Liasson contributed to this report.
7.3 Earthquake hits New Britain island in Papua New Guinea
7.3 Earthquake hits New Britain island in Papua New Guinea.
Preliminary reports warn tsunami waves could hit areas within 300km of the earthquake’s epicentre.
The quake hit off the coast New Britain region of Papua New Guinea earlier today. (Daily Star)
This is a breaking story and will be updated shortly
NY Man Planned to Blow Himself Up at Washington Mall
Police and FBI agents searched a Hudson Valley home Wednesday after learning about a man who was allegedly building a bomb in order to blow himself up in Washington D.C., two law enforcement officials told News 4 New York.
Investigators said they were concerned the man, identified as Paul Rosenfeld, at the home on Slocum Avenue in Orangetown was in the process of acquiring bomb parts.
Officials tell News 4 Rosenfeld had no criminal history but had told a reporter in Pennsylvania he planned to blow himself up on the Washington Mall around Election Day because he was angry about the country’s direction.
He had no plans to hurt anyone else, officials said. He is believed to be a lone actor not affiliated with any international terror group or ideology.
Full Article at https://nts24.co.uk/2A2oWjM
Trump ‘demanding’ answers from Saudis about missing writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump said Wednesday the U.S. is “demanding” answers from Saudi Arabia about the disappearance of a well-known Saudi writer and government critic Turkish authorities say was slain inside his country’s diplomatic mission in Istanbul.
Trump said he plans to invite to the White House the fiancée of Jamal Khashoggi, a writer for The Washington Post who has not been seen since he entered the Saudi consulate on Oct. 2 to get paperwork for his marriage.
Members of Congress have grown increasingly insistent that the administration find out what happened to Khashoggi. The Saudi government has become a closer ally under Trump and some lawmakers warn that relations could be jeopardized if it turns out the kingdom was involved in his disappearance.
Trump told reporters in the Oval Office that he has a call in to the fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, who had been waiting outside the consulate when Khashoggi went inside and has appealed to the president and first lady Melania Trump for help.
Trump said nobody knows exactly what happened and expressed hope that Khashoggi is not dead. He also said he had spoken with the Saudis about what he called a “bad situation,” but he did not disclose details of his conversations.
Saudi Arabia denies involvement in the disappearance of Khashoggi, a former insider in Saudi government circles who has been living in self-imposed exile in the U.S. for the past year after fleeing a crackdown on intellectuals and activists in the country.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said White House national security adviser John Bolton and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner spoke on Tuesday to Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman about Khashoggi. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo then had a follow-up call with the crown prince to reiterate the U.S. request for information.
While angry members of Congress likely won’t cause the administration to turn away from Prince Mohammed and end decades of close security ties with Saudi Arabia, they could throw a wrench into arms sales that require their approval and demand the U.S. scale back support for the Saudi military campaign against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen.
Republican Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said “there will definitely be consequences” if it turns out the Saudis were involved in Khashoggi disappearance. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said it would be “devastating” to the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn, said if Saudi Arabia had lured a U.S. resident into a consulate and killed him, “it’s time for the United States to rethink our military, political and economic relationship with Saudi Arabia.” But he said it was unclear whether the Trump administration was willing to “go beyond words.”
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a longtime critic of the Saudi government, said he’ll try to force a vote in the Senate this week blocking U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He told local radio in his home state Tuesday that he wants to end the arms shipments if there’s “any indication” the Saudis are “implicated in killing this journalist that was critical of them.”
Trump’s comments Wednesday were the toughest yet from his administration on the Khashoggi case. Officials have expressed concern but refused even to entertain questions about what the consequences would be if Turkish allegations turn out to be true. Pompeo has called on the Saudi government to conduct a thorough investigation and to be transparent about its results.
The reaction from European governments has also been cautious. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told his Saudi counterpart that if media reports about Khashoggi were correct, it “would be extremely concerning and the U.K. will treat the incident very seriously,” according to the Foreign Office.
The Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, has described the allegations as “malicious leaks and grim rumors” and said the kingdom is “gravely concerned” about Khashoggi. Saudi officials maintain he left the consulate shortly after entering, although it has failed to provide evidence.
Washington Post CEO and publisher Fred Ryan said reports suggested the journalist was victim of “state-sponsored, cold-blooded murder.” He demanded answers in a statement Tuesday, saying “Silence, denials and delays are not acceptable.”
Analysts said there were reasons for skepticism about the Turkish account. Ties between Ankara and Riyadh are at a low point over Turkey’s support for Qatar in that country’s yearlong dispute with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations. Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim power, is also annoyed by Ankara’s rapprochement with the kingdom’s Shiite archrival, Iran.
Saudi authorities’ failure to provide video footage of Khashoggi’s movements at the consulate to rebut the Turkish allegations have only deepened suspicions.
The Trump administration, from the president on down, is heavily invested in the Saudi relationship. That’s unlikely to change, said Robin Wright, a scholar at the Wilson Center think tank and close friend of the missing writer. The administration’s Middle East agenda heavily depends on the Saudis, including efforts to counter Iranian influence in the region, fight extremism and build support for an expected plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Indication of those stakes came within four months of Trump taking office, when Saudi Arabia became his first destination on a presidential trip and he announced $110 billion in proposed arms sales.
Prince Mohammed has introduced some economic and social reforms, allowing women to drive and opening movie theaters in the deeply conservative Muslim nation. The flip side, however, is that he’s also squelched dissent and imprisoned activists. He has championed the three-year military campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen that has pushed that nation toward famine and caused many civilian deaths.
Still, the Trump administration last month stood behind its support for that campaign with weapons, logistics and intelligence, certifying that the Saudis were taken adequate steps to prevent civilian despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
Karen Elliott House, a veteran writer on Saudi affairs and chair of the board of trustees at RAND Corp., said U.S. support for the Yemen war is likely to be the focus of congressional criticism but won’t endanger a relationship that has endured for decades, underpinned by shared strategic interests. Even under the Obama administration, which had difficult relations with Riyadh compared with Trump, there were some $65 billion in completed arms sales.
“The U.S.-Saudi relationship is certainly not about shared moral values,” House said. “It’s about shared security interests.”
Associated Press writers Susannah George, Matthew Lee and Deb Riechmann and video journalist Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.
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