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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Montana Veterans Defend Tester After Trump Criticism Of VA Nominee Allegations

Army veterans Andrew Person and Cliff Larsen give a press conference outside Senator Jon Tester's Missoula office Thursday, April 26, 2018.
Eric Whitney
Army veterans Andrew Person and Cliff Larsen give a press conference outside Senator Jon Tester's Missoula office Thursday, April 26, 2018.

President Donald Trump called out Montana Senator Jon Tester today on national television in the wake of the President’s pick for VA Secretary withdrawing his nomination.

On Wednesday Tester, a Democrat running for a third term in November, released a two-page list of allegations against Admiral Ronny Jackson. Tester said they came from 23 active duty military personnel and veterans who served with Jackson, none of whom were identified, because, Tester said, they feared retribution.

The allegations included over-prescription of opioid painkillers, drunkenness on the job, and creating a hostile work environment.

Thursday morning, Jackson withdrew his nomination for VA secretary, saying , “these false allegations have become a distraction for this president.”

President Trump then called the Fox and Friends television show.

"And I watched what Jon Tester of Montana — a state that I won by like over 20 points, so they love me and I love them — and I wanna tell you that Jon Tester, I think this is going to cause him a lot of problems in his state," Trump said.

Yellowstone Public Radio requested an interview with Tester. His staff told them that he was on a flight to Montana, and did not want to respond directly to the President’s remarks on Fox and Friends. Tester did, however, provide this statement:

"I am focused on doing my job as ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. It is my constitutional responsibility to make sure the veterans of this nation get a strong, thoroughly-vetted leader who’s going to fight for them. The next Secretary must have a commitment to reform a strained health care system and a willingness to stand up to special interests who want to privatize the VA. My sleeves are rolled up and I’m ready to work with Chairman Isakson to vet and confirm a Secretary who is fit to run the VA."

Senator Tester’s office asked four Missoula-area veterans to hold a press conference on the sidewalk outside his Missoula office Thursday afternoon.

"I really trust in Jon to look out for us," says retiree and Navy Vietnam veteran Alex Taft.

Rancher Cliff Larsen, who served in the Army in Thailand during the Vietnam war was there, too.

"He has indisputable love and affection for veterans of Montana," Larsen says." He’s demonstrated that throughout his career in the Senate. He’s helped to create these local service centers so that veterans have a place to go instead of, you know, catapulting over to Helena."

The veterans said they give some credence to the allegations against Admiral Jackson that Senator Tester gathered, despite them being anonymous. They said they looked forward to Jackson addressing them in his confirmation hearing. 

Andrew Person saw combat as a paratrooper between 2002 and 2005, I asked him if he really believed that Senator Tester’s release of the anonymous allegations about Jackson was not political, given that Tester is running for re-election this year.

"Absolutely not, no," Person says. "Senator Tester is one of the senior members of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He does his job. He’s voted in favor of about 12 of the White House’s nominees for the VA. And so he doesn’t play politics with these nominations." 

Both Larsen and Person are former Democratic members of the Montana Legislature.

Elsewhere, other Montanans expressed the opposite point of view. Aaron Flint, who hosts a conservative radio talk show on a Billings radio station tweeted Thursday that, quote, “several callers this AM expressed outrage that a man who served his country with a career in the U.S. Navy was not given a fair hearing by Sen. Tester.”

Montana’s Republican party issued a press release calling Tester’s actions, “shameful,” and saying that he is, “doing the bidding of his liberal party bosses.”

The Senate is in recess until May sixth. Senator Tester is back in Montana, but his staff says he only has one public appearance scheduled, at a Democratic party fundraiser in Missoula May fifth. His staff says Tester plans to spend the rest of his time catching up on spring planting on his farm outside Big Sandy.

04/27/18, 5:18 p.m: This post was updated to say that both Cliff Larsen and Andrew Person, who are quoted in the story, are former Democratic members of the Montana Legislature.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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