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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
Jeff Sessions Stays Quiet on Resignation Threat; White House Stands Behind Controversial VA Nominee. Aired 4:30-5p ET
Aired April 25, 2018 - 16:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: We have some breaking news on the controversy involving President Trump's nominee to be VA secretary.
CNN has obtained a summary of the allegations about Dr. Ronny Jackson compiled by the Democrats on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
The accusations include more details about Jackson's alleged loose practice of prescribing drugs, as well an incident where Jackson reportedly wrecked a government vehicle while intoxicated.
Lawmakers have not yet substantiated any of these details.
CNN's Manu Raju joins me now.
Manu, these are allegations. We don't have proof of it yet, but the Senate Democrats are providing the information. And they are much more detailed than what has been public information until now
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: No question about it; 23 people have come before this committee, have talked to them about their concerns with Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, 23 former colleagues and current colleagues.
And according to this memo that has been put together, two-page memo by the Democratic staff on the Senator Veterans Affairs Committee, some very serious allegations, but, yes, not substantiated yet.
And perhaps one of the most damaging allegations that is in here is that, according to this memo, at a Secret Service going-away party, Jackson got drunk and wrecked a government vehicle.
This is all part of an episode of excessive drunkenness on the job, one of the -- not just the only time that he allegedly was drinking excessively on the job, but on at least one occasion, according to this document, Jackson could not be reached when needed because he was passed out drunk in his hotel room.
Now, this goes into specific allegations of him loosely prescribing and giving away prescription drugs to people, including, in one allegation, Jackson prescribed medications when other physicians would not do so. And also it describes in more detail about what is viewed as a hostile
work environment that took place under Jackson, including some people saying he was -- quote -- "abusive, volatile" and he had a temper tantrum.
And this is a very damaging picture from these people who are laying out these allegations. But, again, Jake, these are not substantiated. We don't know specifics about this, because the committee Democratic staff said that they don't want to reveal some of these identities to protect the identities of the people who are involved, because a lot of them are whistle-blowers.
Some of them are current employees of Ronny Jackson. But suffice to say, even Republicans that I have talked to today, Jake, take these very, very seriously. They say they need further investigation. And it's one reason why this hearing was delayed, at least for an indefinite period of time, and his confirmation prospects are very grim.
But for the first time, we're getting some more details about these episodes, even as the White House said he's been thoroughly vetted and they say that he is more than qualified for this job, Jake.
TAPPER: And, Manu, just to reiterate the point, this information is coming from the Democratic staff, but the reason Rear Admiral Jackson's confirmation hearing was postponed indefinitely was because of the Republicans on the committee who have the power to do that. They are seriously concerned as well.
But why would the document not come from both parties? Why would it just come from Democrats?
RAJU: Well, that is a good question. But the Democrats were the ones who are getting a lot of these whistle-blower coming to them. They were getting the phone calls. They were starting to investigate this starting last week, Jake.
Jon Tester, who is the ranking Democrat on this committee, said that people started coming to him and this is how they started to pursue it. Now, as soon as he said he learned about this, he started to fill in the chairman of the committee, the Republican Johnny Isakson, who says he is taking these very seriously.
He says he's not going to prejudge whether or not these are true or not, but he also wants to investigate this further. But, yes, this is a Democratic memo that is being circulated on Capitol Hill, the leadership offices, and various committees, but enough for these -- for the Republicans to decide that they want to at least put the brakes on this and investigate this further, because, as one Republican on this committee, Mike Rounds, told me, there are some credible sources who are the individuals behind this information.
And they at least want to see if there is any truth behind them, Jake.
TAPPER: One last very quick question, Manu. Do we have any idea of what kind of prescription medication Dr. Jackson was allegedly prescribing -- or not prescribing, just handing out to people, calling him the candy man?
It is one thing if it is an overnight trip and he's giving Ambien to help people sleep. It's another if he is handing out opioids, like Percocets or whatever.
Does the information go into detail?
RAJU: Well, it does talk about Percocet.
It says that it was an example of Percocet, which is of course used for pain, through the -- there was some missing Percocet, apparently, and it threw the White House military health office -- White House military office into panic.
It turned out that according to the document, it say sit turned out Jackson had provided a large supply to a White House military office staffer. And it said that Jackson also had private stocks of -- quote -- "controlled substances."
So that is providing some more detail than we had known before, but, again, if these allegations are true, very significant, but again just allegations, unsubstantiated, and we haven't heard from Ronny Jackson about whether or not these are true. He has denied doing anything wrong at the moment, but some significant allegations that people are laying out here about his handling of prescription drugs, Jake.
TAPPER: All right, Manu Raju on Capitol Hill for us, thank you so much with the breaking news.
My panel is here with me.
Nia-Malika Henderson, answers are needed. This gets more and more serious, the more information we hear.
NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes.
You feel like Congress here is basically raising the stakes in this. Right? You had the White House obviously come out earlier today and basically say they're standing by him.
TAPPER: Yes. We're fighting for him. Yes.
HENDERSON: They're fighting for him. He's been vetted all of these times. So now it is sort of like, your move, White House. Your move, Ronny Jackson, at this point, because these are additional allegations.
Quite disturbing. Talking about opioids in this report and apparently writing prescriptions for himself. At this point, you wonder, it is not -- maybe not even the nomination that seems to be dangling in the wind, but what about his broader career here if any of these things end up being true? Would his larger career as a doctor be in danger as well?
TAPPER: I have taken Percocets after surgery. They are incredibly powerful. They are not to be trifled with. You can see how addictive they are.
Again, these are allegations.
But, David Urban, again, the White House needs to answer some questions.
DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, look, this is troubling stuff. Death by 1,000 cuts here for Admiral Jackson. You are going to get this until it is answered.
I think there is going to be a lot of pressure to provide answers to the more specific things. When it is kind of ephemeral, it is easier to kind of wave out. But when you credible, specific allegations made against you, you are going to have to answer those.
TAPPER: Our Kaitlan Collins just tweeted that, by the way, the White House said this on Dr. Ronny Jackson today -- quote -- "No reason to believe drinking on the job rumors are true. He's received more vetting than most nominees. We're not going to write him off in any way before his hearing" -- unquote.
Kirsten Powers, the portrait that we keep hearing, you keep creating a narrative for it, a possible narrative of somebody, as you say, who manages up. He flatters President Obama and President Trump, whomever his boss is. They like him. And then he's allegedly abusive to people below him.
KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Right. And then those people are afraid to report it because they think that they could lose their jobs possibly or there might be retribution.
This is just a theory. And it's just something I have seen many, many times in Washington, people who are good at managing up and are really awful to people below them.
I think the alcohol-related stuff, whether it is the banging on the door or being too drunk to treat the president or wrecking a car, is probably in my mind some of the most damaging.
TAPPER: Being too drunk to respond to calls allegedly.
POWERS: Right. The idea he may have prescribed some Percocet to somebody that other people didn't think should get it, doctors do that all of the time. They have disagreements.
Some people do actually need Percocet. We have to remember that. We don't know the circumstances of this. If he was just handing out Percocet like candy to everybody, then I would say we have a different situation.
TAPPER: I just want to -- in his defense, just for one second, because Elizabeth Landers, our White House producer, just spoke with Admiral Jackson and says he denies the allegations specifically that he wrecked a car because he was driving a car while intoxicated after a party for Secret Service agents.
He says it is not true and he says he is not withdrawing his nomination and he's going to continue to stay and fight.
I'm sorry, David. Go ahead.
URBAN: I was going to say, if that is the case, we will hear lots more of this when he's before the committee.
But I would think that these are such explosive allegations, right, keeping a private stockpile of opioids. If that was true, in the past eight, 10 years where he's working as the White House physician, that this would have come out someplace along the way.
So that is why I think it is -- it strains credibility just a bit.
HENDERSON: Yes. And we will see who the people are. At this point, they don't want to reveal their identities. Perhaps they work currently in the White House at this point and he might very well end up being back at the White House.
So we will see who these folks are and if they have any motive to completely make these stories up or if they're credible.
TAPPER: Just to reiterate, though, Manu Raju is saying that the Democrats on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee say that all this information comes from 23 different sources. That's a lot of people.
That's not one disgruntled former employee. That's a lot of people, 13.
Everyone, stick around. We have a lot more to talk about.
Also breaking news on the Hill today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions talking about recusals and chances of resignation and much more. We are going to get to that story next. Stay with us.
[16:45:00] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: We're back with breaking news. Dr. Ronny Jackson, the President's nominee to be V.A. Secretary telling CNN just moments ago, he is not withdrawing from his nomination as Head of the V.A. This follows a summary of the allegations surrounding him becoming public just moments ago that include more details about Jackson's alleged loose practice of prescription drugs -- prescribing drugs and in an incident where he reportedly wrecked a government vehicle while intoxicated. He denied that that happened to CNN White House Producer Elizabeth Landers. Lawmakers have not yet substantiated these details but they continue to share them. Jackson just denied as I said the specific claim about wrecking the car to CNN. My panel is here with me. But let's start with Phil Mudd who I want to go to first. He works in both the CIA and the FBI. He knows about the nomination process and the vetting process. What's your take on the story, Dr. Jackson, drip, drip, we keep hearing these allegations, I don't know what is true and not true but it sounds like there are a lot of people, 23 according to Senate Democrats who have some rather ugly descriptions of his past behavior?
PHIL MUDD, FORMER DEPUTY DIRECTOR, CIA'S COUNTERTERRORIST CENTER: This is an example of why Washington doesn't work -- and for every high school student watching why you should get a lesson not only in civics but in when the government fails you. The government fails at the White House and the House and the Democrats who leaked this stuff failed. Any -- and I've been a nomination before, any nominee goes through an expensive process, it doesn't look like this physician did that would have found this information out, information for example about prescription drugs, information about whether there's truth behind allegations that there are drunken incidents, those would have come out in a serious vetting process and somebody at the White House personnel level could have said I'm not sure we want to do this. The White House didn't do that and now they're stuck. Senate -- House Democrats had another option. They could have said we did our own independent research, I'm sure they didn't need to talk to the physician or do extensive research to validate what they learn. They could have passed it to the White House and said during the nomination hearings this is the kind of nasty stuff that's going to come out. Instead, without giving the physician a chance to speak, they leak it to the press. If you want a friend in Washington, Jake, get a dog because both sides failed this year. Dishonorable is what this is.
TAPPER: I actually have two dogs. So Phil, you're angry at both the White House for not doing thorough vetting, so as to get ahead and find out actually if, A, Dr. Jackson, Admiral Jackson should have been nominated, if there were ugly stuff, give him the opportunity to not have this comes out assuming it is true. And b., since we don't know what is true and what is not true, you're mad at the Senate Democrats for leaking this information, for sharing this information with the public since as of right now we don't know what's true and not true.
[16:50:17] MUDD: That is correct. They're supposed to have a hearing where they get -- where they ask questions and give the nominee a chance to answer. Instead, what they choose to do is a third-rate kneecap job to try to get the White House to pull the nomination because they want to embarrass the President. Look, I understand that. That's the cesspool of Washington, D.C. That doesn't mean it is honorable or that doesn't mean that's the kind of thing we should teach to a kid in high school civics. They should not have leaked it, they should have said if he's going to coming to the Hill for a hearing we're going to ask very pointed questions, these are the questions. If you want to bring them up, get ready it's going to be ugly.
TAPPER: Well, and let me -- let me ask you a question. He has been the White House physician for years. According to the White House, he's passed four FBI background checks, and obviously, he's gotten the glowing reviews from President Obama in these -- in these personnel reports. You were an official at the FBI, could he get these glowing reviews and pass these FBI background checks if these allegations were true?
MUDD: Yes. And the reason is pretty straightforward. Let me step you through for 30 seconds what that nomination process is like. It was far more far-reaching than what I witnessed when I got a top secret security clearance. They want to know -- I was a government official, I didn't make money, they want to know every dime I spent, they're going to interview people I worked with. What I'm saying, Jake, is their review of my financial activities, what my situation was at work and including with people I worked with was more extensive than the security investigation I got. So they would have -- I think, in terms of just talking to people in his office, rooted out things that might not have come up in a standard security background check.
TAPPER: All right, Dr. Phil Mudd, thank you so much. We appreciate your time.
MUDD: Thank you.
TAPPER: I want to bring in the rest of the my panel here. According to Phil Mudd, both the Senate Democrats and the Trump White House have failed Admiral Jackson.
KRISTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it's a fair criticism, actually. I think that it is problematic when you have a lot of things coming out when people haven't had a chance to defend themselves. At the same time, I suspect Democrats probably did want to embarrass the President. I'm not saying that that's OK, but -- and they probably don't feel like the White House is interested in working with them, but I think he really makes a good point. I think there is something problematic with once they're out there, they're out there. It doesn't really matter -- it feels like later when people come back, they need to be able to respond real-time. And so I think he made some really good point.
TAPPER: Yes, especially if the allegations are not true. I mean, if the allegations are true, then the Senate Democrats, I'm sure they feel to play devil's advocate here, that this is somebody who should not be a V.A. Secretary and they want to stop a disaster. That's if the allegations are true.
DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Just to take a point with what Phil said, you know, there are two pieces to any nominee's package going forward. There's the background check, the Sf-86 which is the top-secret security clearance piece of it, and then there's a financial piece of it. The financial piece is very invasive as well. But all of this would come up in the background check that they do for your clearance, for the security clearance part which Dr. -- which Dr. Ronny had for many, many years, right? So I think that if this had been out there before, this is really true, that this would have come up someplace along the way in his security clearance checks.
NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: You know, I don't mind leaks. Leaks are in some ways the lifeblood of journalism. People want to talk, people think the public has a right know so that's what happened here. I also think I need some background on this and Phil Mattingly has been reporting some of this, our Phil Mattingly that Republicans and Democrats had been reaching out to the White House about Dr. Jackson trying to get information, trying to get some conversation going about this nominee and they haven't been very cooperative. So I think in some ways you're seeing a lot of this frustration spill out not only in this leak from the Democrats but in some of the kind of background and off the record conversations from Republicans, just a lot of frustration.
URBAN: And not to give Jake spook a too naked applaud, but you know, Phil is talking about like how nasty it is in Washington and I would say, you know, cut a hat tip to your book. Congratulations on Hellfire Club.
TAPPER: Thank you.
URBAN: I can't get enough of Jake Tapper so I downloaded it on audible so I could hear Jake for hours and hours when I read. But you know, as your book chronicles the 50s, 60s, 70s, Washington is meanest place. A lot of people has sharp elbows and this is somehow new that Dr. Jackson didn't expect this to become and I don't think Phil is correct on that one.
TAPPER: All right, everyone, thank you so much. That is a lovely plug for my book. I appreciate it. American greed and secret society is the latest conspiracy drama to hit Washington, D.C. coming up next. Stay with us.
[16:55:00] TAPPER: Just a quick shameless reminder that my brand-new novel is out. It's called the Hellfire Club. It's a political thriller. It takes place right in the thick of the Cold War Era of 1950s. It's full of familiar real-life characters and new fictional ones that hopefully you'll enjoy. Again it is called the Hellfire Club. It's available on Amazon or at your local bookstore. I would be honored if you check that out. Tonight is answered questions but not like this. Watch former FBI Director James Comey take questions in a special CNN Town Hall moderated by the one and only Anderson Cooper tonight at 8:00 p.m. Eastern only on CNN. You can follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JAKETAPPER or you can tweet the show @THELEADCNN. That's it for THE LEAD today. Thank you for watching. I turn you over now to Wolf Blitzer right next door in "THE SITUATION ROOM."