Last week, the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs — on which Jon Tester is the ranking Democrat — issued a joint statement regarding accusations against Dr. Ronny Jackson, President Trump’s pick for secretary of veterans affairs. In addition to having a name that sounds like an unreleased Jim Croce song, Jackson had been accused of loosely prescribing painkillers, showing up to work drunk and creating a hostile environment for his colleagues. After Tester and the Republican chair of the committee called on Jackson to respond to these allegations, he withdrew from consideration for the job.
One must sympathize with Jackson. Who among us has not applied for a job, only to have dozens of allegations resurface from our past? When I submitted my resumé to Pizza Lean-To, the restaurant that’s just as good as Pizza Hut but without the exorbitant prices, the same thing happened to me. The claim that I had been too quick to hand out prescription painkillers was especially damaging, since I am not a doctor. I am an adult, though, and I did what an adult must do in such situations. I took a hard look at what happened and placed the blame where it belonged: on the guy who interviewed me for the job.
That’s what President Trump did, too. In a series of tweets on Saturday, he blamed Tester for Jackson’s withdrawal and called on the senator to resign. The president also implied that he had damaging secret information, tweeting, “I know things about Tester that I could say, too. And if I said them, he’d never be elected again.”
President Trump did not elaborate on what these things might be, but I think we should take him at his word. He probably knows several career-ending secrets that he’s not sharing, because he wants to give Tester one more chance. It’s like in 2016, when he threatened to “spill the beans” on the wife of Sen. Ted Cruz, but wound up keeping it a secret so as not to tarnish the dignity of the American political system.
“It’s like in 2016, when Trump threatened to ‘spill the beans’ on the wife of Sen. Ted Cruz, but wound up keeping it a secret so as not to tarnish the dignity of the American political system.”
The Bible commands us not to reveal damaging secrets about our rivals — only to tell people we know something really bad and leave it at that. Not everyone has Trump’s money, though, and can afford to live by biblical principles. At a debate in Helena that took place hours after Jackson withdrew from consideration for VA secretary — and before Trump weighed in on Twitter — the Republican candidates for Tester’s seat agreed the senator had treated Jackson unfairly.
Physician and copy-editing risk Albert Olszewski said Tester had “bullied a good man.” Troy Downing worried that the whole country had become a place where a guy could miss out on a job just because dozens of former colleagues said he was corrupt and incompetent. “Anonymous people making accusations that can take somebody down like this, that’s just not the America that I want,” he lamented.
Downing and Olszewski are in a tight race, so we should expect them to take up against Tester whatever cudgel comes readily to hand. Surely, though, there is some weapon more effective than this. Had Jackson not withdrawn so quickly — after expressing surprise that he was nominated in the first place — or more vigorously contested the charges against him, the argument that Tester had “bullied” him might be more convincing. As it is, though, the senator from Montana seems to have done his job. He was supposed to vet Jackson, and he vetted the fudge out of him.
It’s weird to blame Tester for Jackson’s past indiscretions, but a surface understanding of the situation — and I mean the topmost veneer of molecules — fits the method our Republican candidates for senate have followed so far. Trump liked Jackson. Tester didn’t like Jackson, so Tester is bad, because Trump is good. Downing and Olszewski performed this calculus and jumped, even before the president weighed in himself. Their statements defy logic but conform to the belief that the way to beat Tester is to profess fanatical allegiance to Trump.
That idea has had a stupefying effect on the Republican primary thus far. It has kept the candidates from meaningfully distinguishing themselves from one another and led them to ignore more salient criticisms of Tester, such as his move to deregulate banks last month. The day before Jackson withdrew, the American Bankers Association announced that it would make a six-figure ad buy to support Tester in Montana. Instead of painting Tester as an unconscionable objector to Trump’s drunk doctor, Downing and Olszewski might have pointed out that he gave a gift to the national financial-services industry that benefited exactly zero Montana banks.
To do that, however, would require a deeper understanding of Montanans than how they voted in the last general election. If the candidates for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate possess that understanding, they haven’t shown it yet. For now, loving Trump will have to do.
Dan Brooks is on Twitter at @DangerBrooks.