Ronny Jackson: Doctor Who Gave Trump A Clean Bill Of Health Tapped To Lead VA

Jan 16, 2018
Originally published on March 30, 2018 12:32 am

Updated March 29, 2018 at 8:45 a.m. ET

Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson has served with Navy bomb disposal units and instructed underwater salvage teams.

In January, he defused doubts about the health and mental fitness of the nation's 71-year-old president.

Now, he's been chosen to lead the second largest agency in government as President Trump's new secretary of veterans affairs.

There are questions about how his experience prepares him for such a large management job, which will be explored as he goes through the confirmation process in the Senate.

In a statement announcing Jackson's nomination President Trump said, "Admiral Jackson is highly trained and qualified and as a service member himself, he has seen firsthand the tremendous sacrifice our veterans make and has a deep appreciation for the debt our great country owes them."

Outgoing Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin told NPR's Morning Edition, "I know Dr. Jackson very well, I would consider him a good friend. He is a very honorable man. Served the country, cares a great deal about veterans."

Shulkin was ousted amid a controversy around travel expenses, which he says the White House prevented him from explaining to the public, as well as apparent friction over privatizing veterans' health. That issue is likely to dominate the debate over confirming Jackson.

"I think that he wants to do the right thing and will work hard to do that and I will personally help him in any way possible," Shulkin said. "No one I think is naturally prepared to take on a task like this, it is a very challenging role."

Jackson made his first impression with the public in January, when he stood in the White House briefing room, answering questions from reporters about President Trump's physical exam. His lectern-side manner was both professional and disarming — the polar opposite of Trump's personal physician, who drew ridicule with his medical pronouncements on the candidate back in 2015.

Where Dr. Harold Bornstein was shaggy and sensational, Jackson was all business, reading off test results in his blue and gold dress uniform.

And the clean bill of health he delivered was just what the president ordered.

"He said, 'I want you to get out there and I want you to talk to them and I want you to answer every single question they have,' " Jackson said.

The presentation was both folksy and matter-of-fact, as Jackson described the president's eyesight, cognitive skills and heart function as excellent, despite Trump's lack of exercise and fondness for fast food.

"It's called genetics," Jackson said. "Some people have just great genes. I told the president that if he had a healthier diet over the last 20 years he might live to be 200 years old."

What about that time the president seemed to slur his words during a speech on Jerusalem? Jackson blamed a dry mouth, possibly caused by a decongestant. He joked that he knew just how the president felt.

"Me being up here right now, I think I need a drink of water," he said.

Just to be safe, Jackson and an ear, nose and throat specialist ran some extra tests and found nothing amiss.

Jackson said the president could stand to lose 10 to 15 pounds. He said he'd be working with White House cooks to cut calories, while encouraging Trump to get some low-impact exercise.

"He's more enthusiastic about the diet part than the exercise part, but we're going to do both," Jackson said. "He's just like every other president I've taken care of. On occasion, I have to get the first lady involved to make sure he's doing what he's supposed to be doing."

Jackson has cared for three presidents since joining the White House medical unit in 2006. He was formally named physician to the president in 2013 by then-President Barack Obama. In nominating Jackson to run the Department of Veterans Affairs, the White House highlighted that he also directed health care for the Cabinet and the president's senior staff, serving as director of the White House Medical Unit.

Jackson grew up in West Texas and attended Texas A&M and the University of Texas Medical Branch. The Navy doctor, who specializes in emergency medicine, has served at Pearl Harbor, Panama City, Fla., and with a forward-deployed surgical platoon in Iraq.

The battle-tested doctor wasn't taking any chances as he stepped in front of the microphones in January. He reminded reporters that as chief White House physician, he sometimes provides medical care for reporters who get sick while covering the president.

"If something should happen to you over the next few months and you should fall ill at some point, most likely I will be the one called to come take care of you," he said. "So when you ask your questions please keep that in mind."

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When President Trump went looking for a new Cabinet secretary to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, he didn't have to look very far. Trump went with his personal White House doctor, Ronny Jackson. Jackson has sterling credentials as a physician and as a Navy admiral, but there are questions about his nomination, about whether he has the managerial experience to lead an agency as big and as complicated as the VA. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Jackson, who's known around the White House as Dr. Ronny, is one of the few people who works inside the first family's residence. His office is located just across from the president's personal elevator. He sees the president just about every day, sometimes several times a day. The first time most Americans saw Jackson was in January after he supervised Trump's physical and pronounced the president in excellent health.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONNY JACKSON: He's fit for duty. I think he will remain fit for duty for the remainder of this term and even for the remainder of another term if he's elected.

HORSLEY: At that White House briefing, reporters pressed Jackson on how the 71-year-old president could stay so healthy with his red meat diet and his general distaste for exercise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACKSON: It's called genetics. Some people have, you know, just great genes. I told the president that if he had a healthier diet over the last 20 years, he might live to be 200 years old.

HORSLEY: Trump was reportedly thrilled with the way Jackson handled reporters, standing tall at the lectern in his blue and gold Navy uniform. According to CNN, Trump later described the doctor as a Hollywood star out of central casting. The president now wants to cast Jackson in a new role, as VA secretary. Former Secretary David Shulkin was ousted yesterday, and hours later, Shulkin gave an exclusive broadcast interview to NPR's Morning Edition.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DAVID SHULKIN: I know Dr. Jackson very well. I would consider him a good friend. He is a very honorable man, you know, served the country, cares a great deal about veterans. And I think that he wants to do the right thing and will work hard to do that.

HORSLEY: Shulkin says he'll do everything he can to help Jackson, but he admitted it won't be an easy job.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SHULKIN: No one I think is naturally prepared to take on a task like this. This is a very challenging role.

HORSLEY: And despite his impressive medical resume, Jackson is hardly an experienced manager. The West Texas native served as a combat doctor in Iraq and cared for the last three presidents, but the largest organization Jackson has run is the White House Medical Unit, which consists of about two dozen people. The VA employs 360,000.

JOE CHENELLY: The White House has very tall order in front of it right now to be able to show to us that this person is qualified to lead the agency that's responsible for the health care of 9 million veterans and really the overall interest for 20 million veterans.

HORSLEY: Joe Chenelly is a Marine veteran and executive director of AMVETS. That's one of several veterans service organizations that have questioned whether Jackson has the chops to run a government department second only to the Pentagon in size and complexity. One of the big questions facing the VA is how much of its health care responsibilities should be privatized. Chenelly says on that divisive topic, Jackson is a mystery.

CHENELLY: We have no idea of what his personal feelings are on that, what his professional feelings are. We're certainly looking forward to hearing about that.

HORSLEY: A White House spokeswoman insisted today Jackson's nomination should not be seen as a signal that the president wants to privatize veterans' health care, but it is one of the issues likely to dominate at Jackson's upcoming confirmation hearing. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.