Last Wednesday, Sen. Tester (D-MT) released a laundry list of anonymously-sourced, unsubstantiated allegations against the current White House Physician and, until last Thursday, President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Veterans Affairs. The Montana Senator accused Jackson of a wide range of misconduct, from overprescribing medications to drunkenly wrecking his government vehicle. Tester also accused Jackson of being frequently drunk on the job, based on a lurid tale (anonymously sourced, of course) about a Secret Service intervention to prevent a severely-inebriated Jackson from disturbing a sleeping President Obama during an international trip in 2015. Jackson, the story goes, was pounding on a hotel room door next to the President’s in the early hours of the morning.
Admiral Jackson vehemently denied the allegations and refused to withdraw for several days, before finally pulling his candidacy in the face of a media feeding frenzy and eroding Republican support. Jackson maintains his innocence, however, and appears to be telling the truth. Tester, by contrast, appears to have slandered the professional and personal reputation of a man who served in the Navy for twenty-three years, including as the physician in charge of resuscitative medicine at Camp Taqaddum, just outside of Fallujah, in 2006.
On Friday afternoon, the Secret Service released the following statement:
Over the last 48 hours, media outlets have alleged that U.S. Secret Service personnel were forced to intervene during a Presidential foreign travel assignment in order to prevent disturbing (former) President Barack Obama. The Secret Service has no such record of any incident; specifically, any incident involving Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson.
If Tester’s only motivation was to determine the content of Jackson’s character so his fellow senators could make an informed decision, why didn’t he confirm the accuracy of the charge with the Secret Service before he blasted it into the newsfeeds and nightly broadcasts of millions of Americans?
It would have been even easier for Tester to confirm the accusation that Jackson “got drunk and wrecked a government vehicle.” Government agencies are inefficient creatures, but an event like a destroyed or severely damaged vehicle inevitably leaves a clear paper trail. Tester apparently did not bother to check the paperwork before he accused a two-star admiral of driving under the influence and destroying government property, however. Why? Perhaps some “facts” are too useful to check. A search of the government’s database of all accident reports unsurprisingly returned no evidence of Tester’s accusation.
Some of Tester’s other claims similarly fizzled out. The Montana Senator accused Jackson of loosely prescribing prescription drugs, but a five minute review of the specifics of the accusation (a task that apparently required four minutes and thirty seconds more than Tester could spare) reveals that the drugs in question were the sleep aid Ambien and the alertness drug Provigil, prescribed to the White House staff and Secret Service. The use of these medications is not uncommon on foreign trips, where delegations often cross several time zones and must deplane from eighteen-hour flights ready to engage in all of the hoopla of a Presidential visit, beginning with ceremonies on the tarmac. In fact, multiple senators noted that this accusation by itself would have been unlikely to derail Jackson’s nominations — partly because because many senators rely on those prescriptions themselves during foreign trips.
Tester also relied heavily on a 2012 Inspector General command climate investigation into the medical unit at the White House. The report, authored a year before Jackson became Physician to the President and while he was still a senior-level subordinate within the unit, cited severe morale problems caused in part by infighting between Jackson and another senior officer. The report recommended that either Jackson or the other officer leave the unit. (Note: Jackson was promoted by President Obama the following year.) Having filled out more than a few military command climate surveys myself, I can attest that they are not directed at specific individuals, but rather are intended to measure a unit’s attitude about its leadership in general. The report was framed as a smoking gun against Jackson, but reality is far more complicated. Perhaps the report is cause for concern, perhaps not; a thorough review would be required to determine that. But Tester eschewed such nuance. For the sake of brevity, I will leave you with Tom Nichols’ explanation of the issue and why Tester’s description of it was so disingenuous.
Furthermore, the implication of Tester’s litany of accusations defies basic logic. To take Tester’s account at face value, one must believe that the President’s personal doctor was widely known to be unprofessional, intoxicated while entrusted with the sacred duty of potentially saving the President’s life at a moment’s notice, and grossly irresponsible with medication — the fact that no one bothered to raise the alarm for nearly six years until he was about to be moved from those responsibilities and into a management position makes it hard to believe that these allegations are true. Multiple members of the Pod Save America cast of former Obama aides—guys who have shown no reluctance to attack the character of those associated with the new administration—have praised Jackson’s character in the past. Their initial critique on Jackson’s nomination was that Jackson was a great man and an excellent physician, but lacked the necessary experience for the job. It is hard to square this language about Jackson’s character with the image painted by Tester.
Senator Tester’s motivation for leading the crusade against Admiral Jackson is not difficult to divine: he is up for reelection in a state that Trump carried by twenty points, Jackson is already a weak nominee (more on that in a minute), and a public fight for better leadership at the VA plays well in a red state. Nuking Jackson’s confirmation on the launch pad by (supposedly) exposing serious misconduct would allow Tester to remind Montana voters that he really cares about veterans, a point he would be sure to hammer all summer and fall. But he appears to have recklessly overplayed his hand. In his haste to reveal Admiral Jackson’s character, Jon Tester revealed his own.
Perhaps—despite the total lack of evidence and the blanket denials from multiple government agencies— some of Tester’s allegations are true, but even if that turns out to be the case, it doesn’t save Tester. He clearly failed to conduct due diligence on the veracity of his allegations before he attacked the integrity of an Admiral in the United States Navy in front of millions of people and used the credibility of the United States Senate to back it up. He showed poor judgment and scant concern for a decent man’s reputation.
Although Jackson’s nomination for Secretary of Veterans Affairs was controversial from the start, it had everything to do with managerial experience and nothing to do with character. Hours after President Trump announced the White House physician and 23-year Navy veteran as his pick to clean up the perpetually-incompetent agency, observers questioned whether Jackson’s management experience was sufficient for the task. These questions were legitimate, given the sheer size and dysfunction of the VA and Jackson’s inexperience with large bureaucracies, and they deserved satisfactory answers at Jackson’s confirmation hearing — but Jackson never made it that far. Instead, he was labeled a drunk, a substandard military officer, and an unethical physician, and was run off the Hill without the chance to clear his name.
Senator Tester owes an explanation to the American people and an apology to Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson.