Johnny Isakson defends committee, Democratic colleague following bruising VA fight

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson is defending the way he and his committee handled the White House’s withdrawn pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as his Democratic colleague who was heavily critical of the nominee.

The Georgia Republican in recent days has stood by the way the Senate VA Committee, which he has led since 2015, vetted Ronny Jackson, who pulled his name from consideration last week after a swirl of scandalous allegations surfaced in the press.

“I think we handled everything appropriately in the committee,” Isakson told reporters late last week.

Isakson has also been unwilling to criticize the behavior of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, his Democratic counterpart who was excoriated by President Donald Trump for publicly discussing some of the allegations the committee’s Democrats had dug up about the then-White House physician.

"Every senator exercises their options under the confirmation process to do what they think is right, individually, and that is the way it should be," he told CNN Monday.

Isakson had largely flown under the radar as it related to the mushrooming VA scandal until Tuesday, when the left-leaning Daily Beast reported that the White House had grown frustrated with him for not adequately warning them about the dirt Tester had dug up on Jackson, citing four anonymous sources.

Isakson’s team pushed back against the claim that the three-term senator had not given the White House a heads up. Spokeswoman Amanda Maddox said the senator’s first call after learning about the allegations against Jackson on April 20 was to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.

“Senator Isakson informed General Kelly of the new information brought to the committee and asked for guidance from the White House. He was told that day to proceed with the nomination,” she said.

Meanwhile, a White House spokeswoman declined to comment on the way Trump views Isakson. She instead pointed to a series of tweets the president posted over the weekend about Tester that called on him to resign and described the allegations leveled against Jackson as false.

"The great people of Montana will not stand for this kind of slander when talking of a great human being," Trump tweeted.

Low-key leader

Isakson is generally one to avoid Washington’s glaring spotlight, particularly when it comes to his most sensitive areas of work. He much prefers communicating over back channels than in the media because it helps him keep his political options open, he’s said in the past.

He’s also a Senate institutionalist, one who is quick to defend the body’s constitutional prerogative.

On Jackson’s nomination, Isakson purposefully kept his head down and his powder dry.

He was a vocal backer of David Shulkin, the former hospital executive who was fired as head of the VA in March, and he took a publicly noncommittal approach to Jackson after he was first nominated since the two had never met.

Even after they did, Isakson was complimentary but kept his distance.

“He’s an impressive guy, an admiral in the Navy, experienced. I look forward to the confirmation hearing process, and I think he’ll probably fare well,” Isakson told us on April 18. “But you never know. Until the questions are asked and the answers are given, you never know what’s going to happen.”

He did not publicly comment on the specific allegations against Jackson after they first emerged publicly on April 23. A day later, Isakson and Tester postponed Jackson's confirmation hearing and sent a joint letter to Trump requesting more information about Jackson's service in the White House's medical unit, but Isakson still maintained that Jackson deserved a hearing and refused to speculate about the outcome of his nomination.

Jackson withdrew his name from consideration on April 26, but even now the White House claims the allegations made against Jackson are false. In the days since, Jackson stepped down as Trump’s personal doctor and the Senate Armed Services Committee and Pentagon’s inspector general announced they were launching their own investigations into his behavior.

Isakson said last week that he’s not advocating for any specific candidate to get the top VA job but that the administration should seek to find “the best possible person we can get” in the weeks ahead. And he’s expressed his desire to move on from the VA infighting over privatizing some health care services that are said to have fueled some of the department’s infighting with Shulkin.

But Isakson did get uncharacteristically fiery when asked about reporting from the Washington Post, which was echoed Tuesday by the Daily Beast, that he had personally been pushing for the White House to nominate a former staffer as VA secretary.

“That is patently wrong,” he said last week. “It’s a lie and they know it’s a lie. It’s people with ulterior motives trying to spread rumors.”

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