Witcover: Trump's VA nominee takes his bizarre advice

When Donald Trump chose the White House physician, Ronny Jackson, to run the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the president gave him an odd sendoff. "I don't want to send him through a process like that," he said, referring to the customary vetting by Congress. "The fact is, I wouldn't do it. What does he need it for?"

The warning was certainly valid. Dr. Jackson immediately ran into a buzz saw of accusations. They ranged from running a hostile work environment in other jobs to improper administering of drugs and drinking on the job while serving Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama as well as Mr. Trump.

If the president didn't want to put Dr. Jackson though the process, why did he nominate him? And why did Dr. Jackson accept the nomination only to withdraw it Thursday when the predicted heat swiftly came?

One Democratic senator, Jon Tester of Montana, aired it on the basis of 23 witnesses who vouched for Dr. Jackson's bad behavior. Mr. Trump quickly cited his own 20 percentage-point margin of victory in Montana in 2016, warning Sen. Tester that he will have a "price to pay" if he seeks re-election to the Senate.

Perhaps Mr. Trump thought Dr. Jackson, nicknamed "Candyman" by critics for his alleged ready prescription of drugs, could survive the storm through the endorsements of the three presidents. Dr. Jackson's cocky and swaggering demeanor, caught by television cameras in the early going, probably didn't help either.

And so Mr. Trump found himself obliged to make a third nomination for the VA job, which requires managing 370,000 employees, the second-largest constituency in the federal government.

The president had already fired his first taker, David Shulkin, who said he was removed not because he was against reforming the agency but because "I was against privatization," as many conservatives demanded.

The Jackson withdrawal is only the latest of a series of Trump staff, cabinet and sub-cabinet fiascos feeding the narrative of an administration in constant chaos.

It started with the firing of his first White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who later pleaded guilty to lying in the Robert Mueller investigation of the Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

The most prominent victim has been Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, replaced by short-term CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who, though he had not yet been confirmed by the Senate, was sent to North Korea for a critical meeting with Kim Jong-Un in preparation for Mr. Trump's tentative meeting later.

Another Trump appointee, Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, ran into more buzz saws last week in testimony before two House committees over his extravagant expenditures.

At the same time, White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney has been inquiring into the purchase of a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in Mr. Pruitt's office, as well as a sweetheart $50-a-night rental of a Capitol Hill condominium from a lobbyist and her spouse with business before the EPA.

The EPA's own inspector general has been looking into Mr. Pruitt's extensive air travel to and from his home in Oklahoma and other business trips on private and military planes, as well as to various sports events and heavy expenses for personal security.

All this noise surrounding Mr. Pruitt has made him the most conspicuous target of critics claiming wretched excess by a host of underlings of a president whose own weekend excursions to his Florida luxury resort continue to raise eyebrows and taxpayer laments.

The general image thus is of an administration in hopeless disarray, manned by inexperienced favorites of a chief executive who himself appears to many to be more devoted to his golf game than running an efficient and informed government.

The decision of White House physician Ronny Jackson to take Mr. Trump's strange advice, to get out of the kitchen rather than face any more derogatory heat, is only the latest head-scratcher coming from this incomprehensible gang of misfits who have descended on a capital already overstocked in them, and in both parties to boot.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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