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Ronny Jackson drama overshadows Pompeo success for White House

President Donald Trump’s pick for Veterans Affairs Secretary Ronny Jackson finally withdrew from the confirmation process amid escalating allegations of misconduct. | Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Trump once again finds himself caught in a self-inflicted cycle of negative headlines.

White House aides were reveling in the pomp of French President Emmanuel Macron’s state visit, viewing it as a welcome reprieve from the chaos of Cabinet confirmations, an intensifying Russia probe and a boss with a short fuse. Then reality hit.

President Donald Trump’s pick for Veterans Affairs Secretary Ronny Jackson finally withdrew from the confirmation process amid escalating allegations of misconduct, and Trump called into the TV show Fox and Friends to deliver an unscripted interview touching on everything from the Russia probe and the investigation of his personal attorney Michael Cohen to fan-tweets from Kanye West—all before 10 a.m.

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The day also included the confirmation of Mike Pompeo, previously Trump’s CIA director, as secretary of state—an unexpectedly hard-fought victory that was overshadowed by routine House hearings featuring testimony from EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who has been accused of a string of ethics violations.

“The state visit was cool for folks in the White House and fun distraction for one hour from stories about Scott Pruitt or Michael Cohen before everyone got back to the shitshow,” said one former White House official.

The president often publicly frames these hectic junctures as a White House unduly under siege from the press or other opponents. About Jackson’s nomination, Trump said on Thursday: “He’s a great man, and he got treated very, very unfairly. He got treated really unfairly. And he’s a hell of a man.”

The lack of vetting and Trump’s tendency to name top-level nominees with little scrutiny dates back to the presidential transition in the fall of 2016. It’s a pattern that surprises few insiders, even as it creates headaches for the White House and the nominees.

“Generally, White House aides are blaming the president from shooting from the hip and without giving it any thought, but this is how every decision he has made has gone,” said the former White House official.

On Wednesday, the night before Jackson dropped out of consideration, a number of administration aides and Republicans close to the White House gathered at the Trump International Hotel for after-work drinks—and a few aides kept hoping aloud that Jackson would announce he was dropping out on TV, so no one would have to run back to the White House and everyone could keep drinking, according to one attendee.

The biggest beneficiary of this week’s chaos was Pruitt, who started out the week under great scrutiny and disdain from several disparate circles of White House staffers and then ultimately skated through his two Capitol Hill hearings with little incident. Earlier in the week, those hearings were seen as a make-or-break moment for the EPA Administrator and ones that the president would pay attention to.

“As long as his explanations hold and there are no crazy discrepancies or smoking gun or anything like that, I don’t think that creates any red flags for Pruitt,” said one Republican close to the White House, who predicted Pruitt would survive the scrutiny.

What helps Pruitt and other Cabinet nominees who frustrate the White House or Trump is the math in the Senate. The Republicans do not have a large or cohesive enough majority to easily confirm new Cabinet secretaries , and the drama surrounding Jackson’s departure puts a damper on creating any new vacancies to fill.

“In the ideal situation, the only headlines coming out of the agencies are the policy decisions advancing the president’s agenda,” said one senior administration aide, speaking about the spate of bad headlines surrounding Pruitt’s leadership at the EPA. “That is the clear direction from the top, and we’ve communicated that.”

Jon Tester is pictured. | Getty Images

But many White House officials—and the president himself—have adopted the view that the administration is unfairly maligned, no matter what it does.

Many aides were surprised that Pompeo’s confirmation process seemed so shaky at certain points, given the White House’s huge, upcoming foreign policy decisions on meeting with North Korea, keeping troops in Syria, and deciding the fate of the U.S.’s role in the Iran deal. The White House’s Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short devoted most of his time over the past few weeks to ensuring Pompeo got confirmed.

“We can only pick so many battles, and Pompeo has got to get done as quickly as possible,” said one White House official.

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