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Ronny Jackson Withdraws as Nominee to Head Veterans Administration; Other Potential Nominees to Head Veterans Administration Examined. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired April 26, 2018 - 8:00   ET


[08:00:00] DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: The president could say, yes, I like him, I want him, and I don't know if they'll be pushback from the military on that given this. I simply don't know and wouldn't speculate on this. I think it's going to be difficult given these allegations. I think Jackson followed the script really that the president laid out for him, which is why do I need this. You can deny the allegations, avoid trying to disprove them and avoid a fuller airing of those allegations.

And, by the way, more cynically, the White House could use this to then go after Democrats, ignoring the Republicans concerns or indifference towards Jackson, and say this was just a smear job against him.

But it goes back to what John was talking about this morning. The White House has to own this. Whatever the circumstances, this is a nominee that went bad. They're barely getting Pompeo through. They've got problems with Scott Pruitt. And this is because this is how the president operates, impulsively. And in choosing Jackson, again, I'll go back to what I said earlier in the morning, which is I think there's a lot that's very curious about this, that people have come forward after he's been in a job like this which is pretty sensitive for a long time. But these are pretty serious allegations that he would have to deal with, and for the White House to take on this fight that looks like a losing fight would be a lot.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All we all know, when you really believe that they have nothing on you, it is easier to have the resolve to stay in. We also don't know that it was really Ronny Jackson's choice here. The president is the one that has to drive this. It's his choice.

Abby, David Gregory is of course correct when he says the White House needs to own this. He also knows very well as you do you that they won't, right? This will be about them saying that this is your fault, Abby, you and the media, unfair. Unfair witch hunt, this time on Ronny Jackson, unfair on the Democrats, unfairly going after him like they are with Pruitt. Isn't that the expected pushback here?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We've already heard that from them, Chris. In the last several days, the talking points from this White House have been that these allegations are unfair, that they really shine a bad light on Ronny Jackson because the media is perhaps going after him or giving voice to his political enemies. And even if that is true, the problem -- the underlying fundamental problem here is that Ronny Jackson was not vetted for this position before he was named. The White House was caught flatfooted, unable to defend him in the early stages when some of these allegations first emerged.

And then it really snowballed after that. They came into this confirmation process really unprepared for what is actually a pretty standard practice in the process of confirming people in Washington, that you go through a confirmation process. It's advice and consent on the part of the Senate where they look into the person's background, they have hearings on the subject matter, people come forward as character witnesses, and in that process negative information can and does come forward.

In this case, Ronny Jackson has the presumption of innocence. All of these are allegations, of course, but clearly this was a White House not prepared to defend them. They didn't know all the facts behind the situations and he was left out to dry. But I think a lot of Republicans are saying right now even that this is not anyone's fault but the people who are supposed to be shepherding their nominee through what is always a very difficult process but especially in this particular job.

GREGORY: Let me just make one point that I think maybe obvious but I think it's worth saying. In Washington in particular, whether it's in political circles or whether it's in media circles, when there's blood in the water, when you are injured, you have to have somebody who is prepared to stand by you in a really big way. And in this case it would have been the White House being prepared to knock back these charges and knock them back hard. As Abby says, they were not prepared to do that. They were blindsided by that. And when it gets this far afield and there's that much blood in the water, it's just almost impossible to hang on.

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: But that also requires them knowing the fact pattern and doing the work beforehand, which is counter to our discussion. But as Harry Truman once said, if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: John, another question is what's the path forward? So Kaitlan Collins of CNN has reporting that part of why it took so long to get rid of David Shulkin, who was the last V.A. secretary, even though President Trump didn't feel that he shared his opinion about privatization, et cetera, was because there was nobody else. And then it was like, you know, he was thunderstruck when he realized he could do Ronny Jackson, who he liked so much, who is his personal physician. So now what, who's going to head the V.A.?

AVLON: That becomes the big X factor. Remember, the drip, drip, drip over Shulkin over a period of months, someone who had been an Obama appointee, widely respected, back by many members of the veterans community, but who the White House kept hanging out to dry and some ethical concerns adding to his problems, but also some sort of opposition inside the administration.

[08:05:00] Dr. Jackson had that personal connection with Trump based on loyalty, but that obviously isn't sufficient to run this massive bureaucracy that still needs reform. Who he will be replaced by is an utter X factor at this point.

GREGORY: It's so important, if I can just say, Chris, it's so important because we know the trail of tears of difficulty of the V.A. and how it effects our men and women who are coming back from combat after Afghanistan and Iraq. There's so many well documented cases. We talk about a big bureaucracy, but it is important awful. So it's important to move on to get closer to a solution, because dragging it out is only going to make it worse.

CUOMO: And look, we know that polls from veterans' groups showed that they weren't in favor of Jackson and this is a shame game about what the White House should be saying. You say you support the troops. It is not just the White House. It's all politicians and frankly the media very often also. We all say we support the troops but you don't follow their issues. They have over 20 people committing suicide a day as P.J. Rieckhoff in the IAVA, one of the biggest veteran groups told us on this show yesterday. Some of them are doing it right in the parking lots of the V.A. We're not doing the best by them that we can.

He nominated his doctor who is in the military, but that's the best they could find to run the second biggest bureaucracy? The president addressing this situation right now with the folks on the couch at FOX News, and I'm sure he's getting withering questions about this, Abby, but he is not owning the situation. He is saying this is about Democrats, they are obstructionists, they're not approving people. It's a disgrace. Nothing on him for picking his own personal doctor to head the second largest bureaucracy in our government.

PHILLIP: Chris, this really should not come as a surprise to anyone, but as you just pointed out, it's really important to note how different what happened here with Ronny Jackson is, from what happens every other time when it comes to naming a V.A. secretary. Everybody knows this is a very sensitive position. It's something that you want to find someone who is beyond reproach, someone who is nearly universally approved to do this type of job, not just being a doctor, not just being a veteran, but being an administrator, someone who can run an agency.

And obviously the people who -- a lot of people who had had the job in the past have not fixed all the problems at the V.A. But this White House nominated, this president nominated Ronny Jackson essentially on a whim, catching his own aides by surprise. And as John mentioned many of them didn't believe him when he was bringing it up in meetings. So this is not something that went through a process here in this White House, and as a result of that we are where we are today. Putting aside the allegations, I think Republicans and Democrats had concerns about this nomination from the very beginning.

GREGORY: And the president doesn't deserve this tough guy approach how now this is obstruction. Let's just be very clear about one thing, and that is he did not stand up for his guy. As president of the United States, when you stand up and you say, you know, if it were me I wouldn't do it, who wants to put up with this? Why does he need it? But then it's totally his decision, but if he wants to stay and fight, fine. He opened both French doors for him to walk right through.

AVLON: Well played, French door reference there.

CUOMO: Double kiss there.

AVLON: Yes. But in all seriousness, his impulse is to push back on the media, and he was vacillating. He clearly has affection for Dr. Jackson. But he set up the situation. And when he just said, the president just said that this is all about Democratic obstruction he should speak to Republican Senator Johnny Isakson who was one of the very first to raise concerns in public about this nomination and his qualifications for office. You can criticize Senator Jon Tester and say that his Candy man comments were early and inappropriate and raised more innuendo than we had actual substance at the time, but Republican senator from Georgia Johnny Isakson was one of the first to raise a flag of concern to the White House, and that utterly undercuts the president's claim that this is purely about Democratic obstruction.

CUOMO: And we're hearing, Abby, that the president is saying Jon Tester, Democrat from Montana, who, by the way, is known as one of the centrists. He's known as somebody who works with both sides of the aisle, that he's going to have a big price to pay in Montana because of this. If Trump's so confident that this was so wrong, why didn't he stand by his guy? Why didn't he exercise this famed loyalty that only seems to work one way and this is another example of it? He could have said I don't care what you people say about Ronny Jackson, I want to see proof, I want this confirmation hearing to happen because you can't stop the confirmation hearing unless the Republicans want it stalled or stopped? Why didn't he flex like that if he's so sure of himself?

PHILLIP: It is a little surprising, Chris, that the president didn't do more to defend Ronny Jackson in this situation. But we also had heard from sources yesterday that he had wanted to but was urged not to by his aides who understood that this nomination was essentially destined for failure.

[08:10:00] This nomination was so embattled so early that I think a lot of White House aides believed that despite their efforts to hang on to it, it was only a matter of time before something would happen which would cause either Jackson to withdraw or the president to be forced to withdraw his name.

And also at the same time, look, this is not a president who, as you mentioned, often displays the same kind of loyalty to his staff as they might display to him, so on some level we can't be surprised by that. But President Trump had an opportunity, perhaps, to handle this in the right way, and I think a lot of people say it's because he's a political novice but this is what staff is for. Somebody should have said, if we're going to announce this, we need to do some work at the front end, put in a few weeks of research, get him ready to go through this process.

They didn't do that, and Ronny Jackson is the one who is going to pay the price, not just because his nomination is pulled. Remember, he's still a military officer right now. He has a pending nomination for a promotion in the Senate. We don't know what the status is of all of those things. I think his career right now is in a real holding pattern. I think it's beyond just this V.A. secretary nomination for him.

AVLON: This is an Icarus experiment the president launched.

CUOMO: The president is saying again in this interview that he has somebody in mind, but won't say who.

CAMEROTA: Now in the past, we should mention that the two names at least that were floated, David, were Rick Perry, former Texas governor, and Pete Hegseth, who is a veteran and who is now on "FOX and Friend Weekend" I think is his job at FOX. So those are the two names that he had talked about in the past. Maybe that's who he has in mind today.

GREGORY: While, and certainly with Governor Perry, Secretary Perry, former Texas governor, ran for president a couple times. He's got, you know, experience as a chief executive. The V.A. is still a daunting place. He's also I think acquitted himself well within this administration. He kept a low enough profile that President Trump has liked that.

Look, I think you have to acknowledge where the president has a point. I think Democrats were -- there was some zeal with which they enjoyed jamming him up on a nominee who was not ready to go, to expose judgment and vetting problems, because it's not the first time. It's one thing you can go after the media and say this is one of these media narratives about something else going on in the administration, but there is a pattern of bad judgment on the part of the president who promised only the best and the brightest.

CUOMO: And you muck up the main commodity on this, which shouldn't be the partisan play. It should be the common ground. You have all these men and women down there talking the talk about wanting to help the veterans and do something different this time, and then you put somebody up and it looks like he may do that again. Rick Perry as a chief executive, he's going to get pushback. I don't know about Pete Hegseth, but being on FOX may matter to the president. It's not going to matter to Congress. And so you lose that common ground. You lose a place where you could get action where the V.A. will get the resources, will get the attention. That's less likely if you put somebody on who is seen as objectively unacceptable.

AVLON: This is a classic cabinet office that should absolutely be beyond partisan politics, and that's part of the reason why it made sense that Donald Trump kept on an Obama nominee, a gesture across the aisle, a recognition of the fact that this is about something far beyond partisan politics. Rick Perry, by all accounts, happy being energy secretary. He's already passed confirmation. He is a chief executive. He was floated as a successor to Shulkin. He said I'm not interested. Now whether that was about loyalty to Shulkin or actual disinterest in the office, TBD. If its Pete Hegseth, we're back in this trap of picking people you know from cable TV news. And that may create a comfort zone for the president, but I'm going -- it's going to be awfully hard to convince folks that that's a qualification for running the second largest bureaucracy in Washington. That could be setting up another problem in the confirmation process.

GREGORY: And just to underline that, I personally know some top health care executives in the country who turned down the job to V.A. secretary because they considered it to be just full of intractable problems, which is scary to hear because they're so difficult, the issues at the V.A., but the job is so important. So the organizational skills, leadership skills here are pretty important even compared to some of the other cabinet agencies.

CAMEROTA: Abby, we're keeping one ear on the president giving an interview right now and he's just moved on to James Comey. He was I guess watching the town hall with Anderson Cooper last night and saw James Comey's disclosures or explanations for what he did, and the president is very exercised because he said that the memos that James Comey turned over to his friend were not declassified. Now James Comey has made the argument he was a private citizen at the time and when he wrote them, he was the FBI director, but he knows what's classified and what isn't classified.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN HOST: More than he knows, he had the authority...

CAMEROTA: That's right.

CUOMO: classify in the U.S. (ph).

CAMEROTA: He was the chief - the chief person who would have classified them. And so, he said that he did not turn over any classified information, but the President feels differently.

CUOMO: And the Inspector General is not looking into the mishandling of classified information. Another clue as to whether or not the President's right about this. Sorry, Abby?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDANT: But this is - I mean, this is going to be the frontier for the President. He's been building up to this argument for some time, calling Comey a leaker, saying that he broke the law, that he should be in jail.

You know, the James Comey situation with the memos is a tricky one because Comey's own explanation for why he released the memos tends to be a little bit, kind of, fuzzy. He said it's because he thought it would be easier to get it to the media through his friend.

But, at the same time, the President is jumping - leaping, really, to a whole other conclusion. Which is that, the contents of the memos that - of the specific memos that he leaked to his friend, who then gave to the media, were classified and, as you pointed out, there not evidence of that, just yet. But I think the President is trying to make the argument, here, that Comey is the person who is doing - who is committing the crimes.

He's looping James Comey in with Hillary...

CUOMO: Sure. PHILLIP: ...Clinton, who was accused of doing a similar thing, carelessly handling classified information, perhaps, information that was retroactively classified. But, you know, this is the way that the President is going to deal with this Comey situation, essentially, criminalizing James Comey in the eye of the public.

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, this is another version of I'm not the puppet, you're the puppet. This is projection, which is one of the President's favorite tactics. And, obviously, what he's trying to do is play the court of public opinion, particularly, among his base.

Get a talking point that gets repeated in friendly partisan media. But the court of public opinion and real courts are not always the same thing. And unless there's an I.G. report, this is not a great fact pattern for Jim Comey, but given that he had the power to classify, given the fact that memoirs are standard operating procedure for folks, to draw on their personal experiences and memories.

It is far from clear that the President's got a legal argument as much as he's trying to appeal to the base with a new narrative (ph).

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, let's also point out, I mean, Comey, there's plenty of things to criticize him for, but in this particular instance, he's transparent about what he was trying to do.

He was trying to get an independent counsel named because of how tainted he thought the Justice Department was at the highest levels and there's plenty of evidence for that in the book, including, the fact that Jeff Sessions, his Attorney General, didn't protect the FBI director at all from a meddling President.

And so, he knew that if he could, kind of, leave a trail here it would lead to an independent counsel, and by the way, you have Rod Rosenstein who criticizes Comey, who Comey criticizes in the book, but Rosenstein supports the idea of independent counsel and names him as now responsible for overseeing the Mueller investigation.

So, you know, there's a real basis to understand what Comey did and the justification...

CUOMO: Right.

GREGORY: ...for why he was getting that information out there. It's, kind of, -- it's, kind of, (inaudible) the idea that, oh, well if I do this directly than I'll have to take questions in my driveway. I mean, come on.


GREGORY: You know, you're a big boy, you can take it. But - but it's clear what he was trying to do.

CUOMO: Bad (ph) facts on each side, but this positive one though is if the President hadn't fired Jim Comey, you wouldn't have a special counsel right now. We know that from Rod Rosenstein. Let's take a quick break. The President is also talking about Michael Cohen, stepping away from him in a very meaningful way. We'll tell you about it when we come back.


CUOMO: Dr. Ronny Jackson, the President's nominee to be the V.A. Secretary has withdrawn from consideration. This comes after days of disturbing allegations about professional misconduct that added to, almost, unprecedented concerns about this man being well like, but not well acquitted to the job. The President is responding to the news, moments ago, in an interview with Fox News. Here's what he has to say about it.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: obstruction (ph) when your nominees don't fight back?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I could say yes, I can also say no because Doc Ronny - you know, we call him Doc Ronny, we call him Admiral Ronny. He's an admiral. Highly respected, a real leader and I watch what Jon Tester of Montana, a state that I won by like over 20 points, really - they love me and I love them.

And I want to tell you that Jon Tester, I think this is going to cause him a lot of problems in his state. He took a man, who was just an incredible man, an incredible man. Respected by President Obama, gave him his highest rating. You saw what President Obama said. President Bush, he was the doctor to President Bush, to President Obama and their family.

He's been my doctor and he runs a fantastic operation. You know, they have many doctors and they run a fantastic operation. And, honestly, I said it to him, he didn't come to me. I said, you know, Doc, you run a great operation. How do you think you'd do at the V.A.?

Now, we can talk about experience, but the V.A., when you think about 13 million people...


TRUMP: You could take the head of the biggest hospital corporation of the world and it's peanuts compared to the V.A. So, nobody has experience, you know. It's a big monster.

And I'm really proud of the job we've done for the V.A. because we got - we're working, right now, on choice and really big (ph). But we got rid of so many rules and regulations that made it impossible. And we're really doing great at the V.A. But I want somebody that's going to be great. He would have done a great job, a tremendous heart.


CUOMO: All right, let's bring back in CNN political analysts John Avlon and David Gregory. And we have former FBI agent Josh Campbell who worked as a special assistant to James Comey. So, we just heard it there, David, this isn't on me, it's on the Democrats and the media. Nobody is qualified to run the V.A., said the President of the United States.

And that, he went to Ronny Jackson, Ronny Jackson didn't come to him. And he said, wow, you ran a great operation here. He would have been great and Jon Tester, the Democrat Senator from Montana, he's going to pay a big price.

So, everybody is to blame except the man who chose his personal physician, who's never run anything in his life, to head the second biggest bureaucracy in the United States government?

GREGORY: Yes, I mean, there's a couple of problems with that, you know?

CUOMO: A couple?

GREGORY: Yes, there was a couple of glaring ones...


GREGORY: ...which is, you know, you're setting him up for a very difficult situation. As difficult a job as the V.A. cabinet position is. The President kind of conceding that yes, experience would have been an issue and you'd have to deal with that.

You know, this is the President who has no experience in government and he's President, so I'm sure he feels like anybody can overcome that kind of obstacle. But he wasn't preparing him for other questions that would come as the President presumably didn't know about. And I'm sure there were plenty in the White House that thought, look, I mean Dr. Ronny Jackson has been around, he's served multiple Presidents, he's widely seen as a good guy.

It had to have been a surprise that people came forward. But they weren't prepared from a (vetting) point of view to deal with something like this, and so they were very much caught flat footed. And the President, and I think this is typical of him, wanted to -- certainly supportive of the guy he is but at the same time made it very clear in front of the world two days ago, that he should probably not go forward with the fight.

That was a pretty strong signal to Ronny Jackson that I wouldn't go all the way with this, I'll support you but I wouldn't go all the way, which is just not the strongest support. And you know, Jon Tester who does face tough re-election in Montana, you know, I don't know that he had particular zeal here to jam him up.

You know, except for what came forward, now I initially thought that Tester was a little loose in his language repeating this candy man accusation when - what he was talking about was handing out ambient on White House flights, which is a common thing to do among the media and traveling staff.

But there appears to be more to it than that still I think the President would do well, as in a lot of cases, to write this off and move on to talking about how important the job is at the VA, and how he feels they're doing well and who they're going to put in there next.

AVLON: Yes, and one other thing I think that's got to be called out is the President saying that the VA is such a monster in his words, such a complex bureaucracy that even if you run the largest hospital corporation in the country you're not prepared. There's no way to be experienced.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: And what about that, is it too - so it's such a behemoth that nobody could ever have adequate preparation.

AVLON: That's just self evidently ridiculous, some experience running a large hospital bureaucracy is better than none. Even if there is nothing quite like running the VA.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN HOST: And that's what David Shulkin's background was by the way. He ran hospital systems, obviously he's going to know something about it but look this is I'll be the Trump. Now he's taking on something else and once again distancing himself and once again it's going to call into question, the Presidents noted loyalty. Michael Cohen, is his personal lawyer, by everyone's account this man has given his life over to President Trump, here's what the President had to say about him.


BRIAN KILMEADE, FOX & FRIENDS COHOST: Eagle work was handled by Michael Cohen.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well as a percentage of my over all legal work, tiny, tiny little fraction. But my goal would represent me and represent on some things, he represents me like with his crazy Stormy Daniels deal, he represented me and you know, from what I see he did absolutely nothing wrong. There were no campaign funds going into...

AINSLEY EARHARDT, FOX & FRIENDS COHOST: Then why is he pleading the fifth?

TRUMP: Because he's got other things, he's got businesses. And from what I understand they're looking at these businesses. And I hope he's in great shape, but he's got businesses and his lawyers probably told him to do that. But I'm not involved, and I'm not involved - and I've been told I'm not involved. When this came out in the newspaper I was told I'm not involved in that.


CAMEROTA: I just want to make this point, has he ever before said he represented me in this Stormy Daniels deal? I thought the whole thing was he didn't represent me. That was different. Am I right? Am I hearing that wrong?

AVLON: Well I think your hearing - your hearing is right. CUOMO: Whether the team knew about the payments


CUOMO: Right I think you're hearing it right, and it's important for the President to say that because Michael Cohen's argument is, I have authority to do these kinds of transactions for the President. The confusion is the president in the past has said, he didn't know anything about this.

CAMEROTA: Right, but how could he represent him at the same time?

CUOMO: Well you can have that type of authority in an agency power as an attorney but it is a mixed message. The other problem is, he really minimized the significance of Michael Cohen in his life. Tiny, tiny fraction of my overall legal work, this has nothing to do with me, it's only about his business. And I have been told I have nothing to do it.

JOSH CAMPBELL, LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: That's right and you know what lets state the obvious, my personal opinion is I hold a grudge Mr. Cohen for exercising his right to invoke the Fifth Amendment, every citizen has that right. But what is interesting is that there are two different campaigns here. There's the court of law and then the court of public opinion and they don't seem to be squaring because you have, you know, in the court of public opinion the administration saying we have nothing to hide, there's nothing here, don't worry about.