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White House doctor withdraws bid for US cabinet job

© AFP/File | White House physician Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson has withdrawn what was a surprise nomination to head the Department of Veterans Affairs

WASHINGTON (AFP) - 

US President Donald Trump's doctor Ronny Jackson withdrew his nomination to head the Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday following allegations he improperly handed out drugs and was drunk at work.

The announcement marked the latest staffing upset for an administration rocked by a series of firings and resignations in the little more than a year since Trump took office.

"I am regretfully withdrawing my nomination to be Secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs," Jackson said in a statement.

Jackson insisted that the allegations against him were false, but said he was withdrawing anyway due to the distraction they were causing.

"Unfortunately, because of how Washington works, these false allegations have become a distraction for this president and the important issue we must be addressing -- how we give the best care to our nation's heroes," Jackson said.

His withdrawal came just a day after he indicated that he would fight on, telling reporters his surprise nomination was "still moving ahead as planned."

Trump said he had seen the writing on the wall, but defended Jackson, saying he "would have done a great job."

"These are all false accusations... they're trying to destroy a man," he said in a phone-in interview with Fox News.

The president's daughter Ivanka also came to Jackson's defense, writing on Twitter that he is "a man of exceptional integrity, character and intellect."

She indicated that Jackson would stay on in his current job, tweeting: "We... look forward to continuing to see his warm smile each day at the White House!"

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Thursday that "he is here at work today."

Jackson's withdrawal came as the embattled head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, appeared before a congressional panel for what was set to be an hours-long grilling over mounting ethical questions.

Pruitt has notably been under fire for lavish spending on first-class travel with a large security detail, for a discount he received on a condominium linked to a lobbying firm, and for allegedly sharply boosting salaries of close aides at the EPA.

- 'Candy man' -

Trump sacked David Shulkin, the previous head of the 380,000-plus employee Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), in late March after he was accused of spending $122,000 on a nine-day trip to Europe with his wife, which included sightseeing at castles and taking in professional tennis matches.

The agency is notoriously dysfunctional, and a lack of funding has weakened the hospital network specifically dedicated to the health of veterans -- a key constituency for Trump.

The system has come under criticism from many veterans and organizations for falling short, particularly in terms of psychiatric care for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Trump surprised even his closest aides a month ago with an evening tweet announcing Jackson was his pick to run the VA.

The Navy rear admiral was the physician to presidents Trump, Barack Obama and George W. Bush and was well regarded by many current and former White House staff.

But he was widely seen as underqualified to head the VA and already faced a tough battle for congressional confirmation.

Jackson's stock with Trump appeared to have risen after he pronounced in January that the 71-year-old president was in "excellent" health.

After releasing the results from Trump's physical, Jackson said "he has incredible genes and that's the way God made him."

But following the announcement of his nomination, a wave of allegations surfaced over his behavior, including that he doled out drugs to staffers like the "candy man" and crashed a government vehicle.

Senate Democrats released a litany of allegations on Wednesday, citing "conversations with 23 colleagues and former colleagues."

These included that he handed out sleeping tablets on Air Force One, opioids to at least one White House staffer and prescribed drugs for himself.

"On at least one occasion, Dr Jackson could not be reached when needed because he was passed out drunk in his hotel room," according to a document released by Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat.

Tester on Thursday thanked the "servicemembers who bravely spoke out" about Jackson.

"The next secretary must have a commitment to reform a strained health care system and a willingness to stand up to special interests that want to privatize the VA," he said.

© 2018 AFP