What was U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin thinking when he failed to tell anyone for three days that he was in intensive care amid the wars in Ukraine and Gaza? The controversy over the medical situation of the Pentagon chief, who is recovering in a military hospital from complications from surgery, has not abated as time passes. The Republican candidate and former president Donald Trump is calling for his dismissal, while the White House was categorical on Monday: it maintains its full confidence in the general.
Austin, second only to President Joe Biden in the U.S. military chain of command, entered the intensive care unit at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington on January 1. For three days, no one knew that the secretary of defense was hospitalized, including his deputy, Kathleen Hicks — who had traveled to Puerto Rico and had to take over the duties of her boss there — and the U.S. president himself.
Finally, late last Friday afternoon, just 24 hours after notifying White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan of the situation, the Pentagon issued a succinct statement. The four-star general remained in the hospital on Monday, although the Department of Defense stated that he was recovering well and had taken over his duties from his hospital room. Biden spoke with him on Saturday. But while military spokesman Pat Ryder confirmed that Austin had left the ICU for a room, there is still no timetable for his discharge.
“There is no plan for anything other than for Secretary Austin to stay in the job,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, who accompanied Biden on Monday on a visit to South Carolina, told reporters from Air Force One. For her part, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre, who was traveling on the same flight, emphasized that the president has “complete confidence” in his Secretary of Defense.
“We’ll take a look at process and procedure here as you might expect — try and learn from this,” Kirby said. If the inquiry into what happened determines that changes to the notification protocol are necessary, the White House will implement them. Currently, the president’s office checks where the bearers of each portfolio are every morning, but only in a “generic” way, according to the spokesman: it knows the city or location where they are, but not the exact coordinates.
“I think our main focus right now is on Secretary Austin’s health and making sure that he gets all the care and the support that he needs to fully recover,” the spokesman said. “[Austin] has already resumed all his authorities, he’s already doing all of the functions he would normally do from the hospital,” he added.
Thus far, the Secretary of Defense’s medical problem has not been made public; according to those close to him, he is an introverted man who hates to divulge details about his private life.
The Pentagon did confirm that Austin had undergone surgery at the beginning of Christmas vacation and was released a day later. But complications resulting from that surgery necessitated that the secretary of defense be admitted to the hospital again. “The White House and the National Security Council were not notified and did not know until Thursday afternoon,” Kirby admitted. “I think there’s an expectation that when a Cabinet official becomes hospitalized … that will be notified up the chain of command. There is that expectation,” he concluded.
Austin’s duties as secretary of defense require that he be available at all times to respond to any potential national security crisis. This is a particularly pressing need at a time when the United States is facing attacks by Iran-allied groups in the Middle East and fears grow over the spread of the conflict between Israel and Hamas elsewhere in the region, and as Russia is stepping up its attacks in Ukraine. In a statement issued Saturday, Austin took “full responsibility” for the lack of transparency and secrecy surrounding his medical situation.
The White House does not appear to have interpreted the miscommunication as malicious negligence, but rather as an omission resulting from the general’s reserved personality. Austin — the first black U.S. Secretary of Defense and a man of great physical presence at 6′4″ tall — is highly regarded in the Biden administration. Throughout his political life, Biden has been known for being very loyal to his team, a tendency that has been accentuated during a presidential term in which he has surrounded himself with people he absolutely trusts and who have known each other for decades.
“The president respects the fact that Secretary Austin has taken responsibility for the lack of transparency. He also respects the superb job he has done as secretary of defense,” Kirby said Monday.
Criticism and doubts
Although the White House is ready to turn the page, the Republican opposition does not seem ready to give up the controversy, especially with only a week to go before the Iowa caucuses begin the primary process to decide the new candidate for the November presidential election. Some Democratic congressmen have also begun to express doubts about the appropriateness of the Pentagon chief’s behavior.
On Sunday night, Donald Trump, the favorite to win the Republican nomination, said on his social network, Truth Social, that Austin should be removed for his “improper professional conduct and dereliction of duty.” Trump added that “he has been missing for one week, and nobody, including his boss, Crooked Joe Biden, had a clue as to where he was, or might be,” he wrote.
The chairwoman of the House Republican caucus and member of the House Armed Services Committee, Elise Stefanik, also called for the Pentagon chief’s resignation in a message on X, formerly Twitter: “This concerning lack of transparency exemplifies a shocking lack of judgment and a significant national security threat. There must be full accountability beginning with the immediate resignation of Secretary Austin and those that lied for him and a Congressional investigation into this dangerous dereliction of duty.”
In a joint statement, both parties’ leaders on the House Armed Services Committee, Republican Mike Rogers and Democrat Adam Smith, wrote that “several questions remain unanswered including what the medical procedure and resulting complications were, what the Secretary’s current health status is, how and when the delegation of the Secretary’s responsibilities were made, and the reason for the delay in notification to the President and Congress.”
The two lawmakers also noted that “transparency is vitally important. Sec. Austin must provide these additional details on his health and the decision-making process that occurred in the past week as soon as possible.”
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