News Brief: Allegations Against Ronny Jackson, Scott Pruitt
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President Trump's choice to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs faces another day of allegations about his conduct in his current job.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Yeah, the charges are laid out in a two-page list that was released by Senator Jon Tester. He's the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. And he says these allegations were based on accounts from more than 20 of Ronny Jackson's past and present colleagues from his current job as White House physician. One claim is that White House doctor Jackson wrecked a government vehicle while he was driving drunk. Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat of Ohio, told NPR yesterday that all of this highlights problems with the administration's vetting process.
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SHERROD BROWN: That's just unbelievable to me that that many people are willing to come forward and almost zero of them - or almost none of them were approached by the White House before they sent the name up. You don't hire the person at your front desk without checking some references.
MARTIN: Jackson is accused of mishandling drugs, creating a hostile work environment and wrecking a government vehicle while intoxicated. Speaking briefly with reporters yesterday, Jackson said, quote, "I have not wrecked a car."
INSKEEP: NPR's Quil Lawrence has been following this story. He covers veterans.
Hey there, Quil.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: So what strikes you when reading this document from Jon Tester?
LAWRENCE: Well, you know, we'd heard that the charges came in these three categories - that he had been loose with prescription drugs, that he had a drinking problem and that he had a toxic work environment. But when you read the actual descriptions of these things, it seems much more damning - that he was very loose with dispensing opiate drugs like Percocet, not just sleeping aids like Ambien; that he was prescribing for himself or that he was not keeping track of these powerful drugs; that he was drunk while he should have been attending the president; that he was drunk driving.
So - and these are coming from 23 current and former military who worked with Jackson and who approached the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. They didn't go looking for all these people. They approached 'cause they were concerned. And the quotes say that he was one of the worst officers that they ever served with. So the real question is how his security clearances - many of them - and FBI investigations could have missed this.
INSKEEP: OK. So he said, I've not wrecked a car. And he specifically denied that because, he said, that should be easy to check. Is it also easy to check something like whether a lot of Percocet went missing? Don't doctors' offices have to really keep track of that sort of thing?
LAWRENCE: Well, yeah, many things you'd think there would be a paper trail on. What's confusing, really, about this is that whereas you have all of these 23 people who came forward with varying allegations, you have other people who worked with Jackson for years, including President Obama, President George W. Bush and now President Trump and people on his staff, who say they just cannot believe these charges at all. So if it weren't 23 different sources, according to Senator Tester on the Veterans' Affairs Committee, it would really be hard to sort of credit these.
MARTIN: Right. I mean, the White House right now is retweeting and putting out there an actual form that Barack Obama signed saying this guy was great, great doctor - trying to validate his character.
LAWRENCE: It's real cognitive dissonance, but it does seem like they failed to get this stuff in the vetting process. And that is really frustrating the senators involved in this. They are used to unanimously confirming VA nominees. And the fact that all of this stuff is coming out now, when it could have come out quietly in a background check and never gone public, is really frustrating and depressing people in the veterans space because they don't want to have a nasty, party-line vote where they get...
INSKEEP: On veterans, yeah.
LAWRENCE: ...All partisan on an issue like veterans.
INSKEEP: Exactly. NPR's Quil Lawrence, thanks very much.
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INSKEEP: EPA director Scott Pruitt appears before two House subcommittees today, officially to discuss his agency's 2019 budget proposal.
MARTIN: Yeah. But instead, he's likely going to face questions about his personal conduct and spending practices. The New York Times reported last week that there are currently 10 federal inquiries into Pruitt's behavior. Yesterday, we had the deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley on the program. And when I asked him if President Trump still wants Pruitt on the job, this is how he answered.
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HOGAN GIDLEY: I can tell you that the president and the White House are aware of these issues and these stories. They raise some serious concerns. There's no question about that.
INSKEEP: Big acknowledgment there. Domenico Montanaro is following this story for NPR. He's on our Politics team.
Hey there, Domenico.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: OK. So what do we expect lawmakers to be asking about?
MONTANARO: Well, first of all, get the popcorn ready. It's a scandal day here on Up First.
MONTANARO: But, you know, these are going to be pretty feisty hearings. You know, quickly, some of Pruitt's ethics troubles have been, just ticking them off - flying first class; paying for close aides' raises that the White House had rejected; demoting a driver who refused to put on emergency lights to get through D.C. traffic, as well as others who questioned him at the EPA; a home he rented from a friend whose wife was a lobbyist with business ties before the EPA - got it for a discounted rate; an expansive security detail that accompanied him to personal events like the Rose Bowl and Disneyland; and some $43,000 for a soundproof booth he had installed at the EPA.
INSKEEP: Yeah, so that he could have private phone conversations, he said, with the president.
So Domenico, if you look back over the last - I don't know - month, several weeks anyway of this Cabinet secretary, maybe not every single day has been a tsunami of bad news. But many of them have been. Now he, I guess, has an opportunity to respond. Any idea what he's going to say for himself?
MONTANARO: Well, it's certainly all added up for sure. He's expected to tout his repeal of those regulations at the EPA that had been put in place by the Obama administration - so targeting Republicans. But when it comes to those ethics scandals, he's likely to blame others. His opening statement that went out this morning makes no mention of the scandals, only what he's done at the EPA. But there's a lot of work going on behind the scenes for him to try and work up some talking points to respond to some of these things.
For example, on those first-class flights, he'll say that changes have already begun, that he's started to fly coach; that the former head of his security detail who'd recommended those measures has taken early retirement. On those pay raises, we've heard him before blame others for this. But he hasn't been very specific. And perhaps the most important work he's been doing in his defense has been before the hearing. He's been reaching out to Republican members, got in touch with the chairman of both committees. And he's been telling them, apparently, that their districts had received agency grants to clean up industrial sites known as brownfields as The Washington Post reports.
INSKEEP: Wow. OK. Domenico, thank you very much.
MONTANARO: You're welcome, sir.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Domenico Montanaro.
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INSKEEP: Leaders of the two Koreas are set to make history tomorrow.
MARTIN: Yeah, North Korea's Kim Jong Un and South Korea's Moon Jae-in are meeting at their shared border for a summit. It's going to be the first meeting like this between the Korean leaders in more than a decade. Kim Jong Un is actually planning to walk over the military demarcation line that's divided the peninsula since 1953. He will be the first North Korean leader to do that.
INSKEEP: And NPR's Elise Hu is covering this story from Seoul.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hey, there.
INSKEEP: So OK, they meet. This is a big deal. But what are they going to talk about?
HU: Well, there are three main items on the agenda. One is denuclearization, which is a fuzzy word because definitions of that really...
HU: ...Vary depending on who you ask; also is a peace framework of some sort, since the Korean War is technically not over; and the third item - improving inter-Korean ties and how to get there.
Kim and Moon will greet each other on the border at 9:30 in the morning Korea time. They're going to meet all day and then have a dinner banquet together at night. So it's going to be a full-day schedule.
INSKEEP: Is this something of an awkward meeting? Not just because of the tensions between the two countries - because fundamentally these two leaders sit down and each of them, the official goal of their country is to unify the country by putting the other guy out of business.
HU: That is true. However, both sides have been so choreographed in what they're going to be doing tomorrow. There's a lot of agreement on coming out with some sort of peace framework and some sort of objectives when it comes to improving inter-Korean ties that actually, you know, in this flurry of diplomacy over the past few months, both sides have gotten along quite well.
INSKEEP: And so what does the choreography look like? What is the pomp and circumstance going to be?
HU: OK. Well, inside the DMZ, there's a shared security area between the two Koreas. There is the iconic blue huts, which you've probably seen on TV or in photos. And what's going to happen is the two leaders are set to meet at a concrete curb, a raised concrete line that marks the military demarcation line there separating North and South, right between the two blue huts. They're going to shake hands there and then walk over to the southern side together, all while cameras are streaming this whole thing.
And then they're going to walk together into a three-story gray stone structure with a balcony on top. That's known as the Peace House. And on the second floor is where their meeting room is set up. And that meeting room has been completely renovated to look like a traditional Korean house, a hanok. And then they've also put up a giant painting of a North Korean mountain called Mount Kumgang. And together, they will meet there before having a highly, highly symbolic banquet dinner with all sorts of menu items with foods from various leaders' - or both those leaders' past lives.
INSKEEP: It sounds like every second of this, someone has given thought to the symbolic importance. In every gesture and every visual that we will see, somebody has thought about it.
HU: It sure seems like it, Steve.
INSKEEP: Elise, thanks very much.
HU: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Elise Hu preparing for a summit of the leaders of North and South Korea.
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