The outrage aimed at Montana’s Sen. Jon Tester over his handling of the recently aborted nomination of Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson is only the first shot in what is sure to become a growing barrage of attacks as the Senate election nears.
Republicans incensed that overblown criticisms of Jackson were aired before they could be fully investigated seem to have no qualms about doing the same to Tester. In their rush to defend President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, they accuse Tester of waging a smear campaign out of a purely partisan desire to obstruct Trump.
Forget that Trump has signed no fewer than 13 bills forwarded by Tester, the majority of them designed to improve service to veterans and improve accountability in the VA. Ignore the fact that Tester has voted in favor of more than a dozen of Trump’s other nominees to the VA, including two high-level positions confirmed just last week. And never mind that Tester had the full support of the Republican members of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, including Republican Chairman Johnny Isakson of Georgia, in seeking to delay Jackson’s hearing until the allegations against him could be investigated.
No, Trump and his supporters are trying to paint Tester as the sole Democrat responsible for sinking an unquestionably stellar choice to lead the VA. And in doing so, they are attacking one of the most moderate Democrats in the Senate on his single most successful issue.
Tester’s record of support for veterans and attention to veterans’ issues goes back years, even to before he became the most powerful Democrat on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. In that position, he has continued to be a voice for veterans, alternately calling out the agency for poor performance, demanding reforms and highlighting improvements.
Veterans in Montana and throughout the nation can rightly judge him on his effectiveness. But it is grossly inaccurate to claim that Tester suddenly shirked his responsibility to veterans when he approved the public release of serious concerns raised by dozens of individuals who had worked with Jackson previously. Indeed, Tester’s actions were entirely in keeping with his duty to veterans and in line with his stated commitment to transparency. President Trump should take note.
Instead, in a series of statements over the past week, Trump has warned that Montana’s senior senator “has a big price to pay” for his role leading up to Jackson’s resignation, even tweeting that “Tester should resign.” Had Trump’s administration more thoroughly vetted his choice to lead the VA, of course, these allegations might never have become an issue in the first place.
But since that didn’t happen, it fell on the members of the Veterans' Affairs Committee to thoroughly review Jackson’s record of service. In the course of doing so, they found plenty of reason to suspect that Jackson is not qualified for the critical job of guiding one of the nation’s largest agencies, responsible for the care of more than 9 million veterans, including more than 50,000 veterans enrolled in the VA health care system in Montana.
Tester is the ranking Democrat on the Veterans' Affairs Committee. It is literally his job to review information — including both accolades and complaints — about potential VA leaders.
And again, both Democrats and Republicans on the committee agreed that Trump’s nominee warranted deeper vetting. Since Trump’s administration failed to provide the necessary information collected as part of the usual vetting process, committee members set about gathering this information themselves. In addition to finding no prior experience managing a large government agency, they heard reports from more than 20 military employees that Jackson had mishandled medication, was sometimes intoxicated while on duty and had fomented a hostile work environment, among other charges.
This information was then shared with the public — because the committee is a public body comprised of public servants working on the public dime. It was presented as exactly what it was — allegations that had not been substantiated but which clearly warranted further investigation.
Strangely, Jackson, who remains employed as a White House physician, withdrew his name from consideration almost immediately, even before some of the reports could be countered. The Secret Service, for one, already announced that it had looked into the claims that he had wrecked a car while drunk and found no substantiating evidence.
As Tester noted in an interview last Thursday, “(Jackson) could have answered the allegations, maybe we could have knocked them down and moved him closer to confirmation. But he chose to withdraw.”
The White House has since taken pains to share the results of any official reviews — reviews that should have been done before Jackson was nominated if Trump were truly concerned about keeping any potentially embarrassing claims about Jackson’s past behavior out of the public eye.
But let’s say, for the sake of argument’s, that Tester had not done the job entrusted to him by the voters of Montana, and had simply let Jackson’s confirmation proceed without closer scrutiny. It has been less than a year since President Trump signed into law the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, cosponsored by Tester, which established an Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection within the VA. The last thing the scandal-plagued agency needs is these same allegations to be raised by whistleblowers against its own top administrator.
Fortunately, the system set up by the U.S. Constitution to either reject or confirm the president’s nominations to cabinet posts worked exactly as it should. Montanans of every political stripe, veteran or not, should feel satisfied with the outcome.
And we should keep in mind that there’s a good reason Trump and his supporters aren’t wasting their time attacking Isakson or any of the other Republicans who opposed Jackson’s nomination. That reason has everything to do with party politics and elections, and nothing to do with what’s best for veterans.