WASHINGTON – President Biden has “no plans” to dismiss Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin after the top military adviser failed to tell his boss that he’d been hospitalized for days last week following elective surgery complications, the White House said Monday.
“The president’s number one focus is on his [Austin’s] health and recovery, and he looks forward to having him back at the Pentagon as soon as possible,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on board Air Force One en route to South Carolina.
Austin, 70, has been hospitalized at Walter Reed Army Medical Center since New Year’s Day, transferring his duties to deputy secretary Kathleen Hicks while he was incapacitated.
The problem? Not only was Biden not immediately informed of the situation, but neither was Hicks – who was on vacation in Puerto Rico when she learned of Austin’s hospitalization on Thursday, a day before the news went public.
The White House and Pentagon said Austin resumed his duties on Friday – albeit from Walter Reed.
“He’s already doing all the functions you would normally do. He’s just doing it right now from the hospital bed,” Kirby said.”… There [are] no plans for anything other than for Secretary Austin to stay in the job and continuing the leadership that he’s been demonstrating.”
Not only did the Pentagon fail to make proper notification to the White House of Austin’s condition, but it also waited until after the close of business on Friday to announce the situation publicly.
The secretary underwent his mystery surgery on Dec. 22 at Walter Reed and was released the following day. On the evening of Jan. 1, “he began experiencing severe pain,” and was taken by ambulance back to Walter Reed, “where he was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit,” Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder said Monday.
Ryder blamed the delay in notification on Austin’s chief of staff, who he said “had been out sick with the flu, which caused a delay in these notifications.”
“We are currently reviewing how we can improve these notification procedures, to include White House and congressional notifications,” the Pentagon rep added.
But New Year’s Day wasn’t the first time Austin had been hospitalized without the president’s knowledge. The defense secretary’s Dec. 22 overnight stay at Walter Reed following his initial surgery was also not relayed to the White House.
In a letter to Defense Department spokespeople shortly after the notification came, the Pentagon Press Association called it an “outrage” that Austin had been hospitalized for four days “and the Pentagon is only now alerting the public late on a Friday.”
Three days later, the Defense Department has still not commented on the nature of Austin’s “elective” surgery – or said when he is expected to return to the Pentagon in person.
The mystery surgery and bizarre secrecy are perplexing lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, with House Armed Services Committee chairman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) issuing a joint statement Sunday demanding more information and saying they were “concerned with how the disclosure … was handled.
“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 lawmakers wrote.
“Transparency is vitally important. Secretary Austin must provide these additional details on his health and the decision-making process that occurred in the past week as soon as possible,” they added.
Some Republicans – including former President Donald Trump – have called for Austin’s removal from office, with the GOP presidential front-runner saying the Pentagon chief “should be fired immediately for improper professional conduct and dereliction of duty.”
“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,” Trump, 77, wrote on Truth Social Sunday.
Others, such as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), used the situation to ridicule Biden.
“Is anyone surprised that Joe Biden didn’t know where [Lloyd] Austin was?” Jordan said on X Monday.
“What’s worse,” asked Senate Armed Services Committee member Tom Cottom (R-Ark.) Monday on X, “[Austin] not telling President Biden he was in the hospital, or that no one at the White House noticed?
“It raises serious question about President Biden’s competence and leadership.”
The delayed notification breached the Pentagon’s own “Principles of Information,” which hold that “it is Department of Defense policy to make available timely and accurate information so that the public, the Congress, and the news media may assess and understand the facts about national security and defense strategy.”
“The public has a right to know when US Cabinet members are hospitalized, under anesthesia or when duties are delegated as the result of any medical procedure. That has been the practice even up to the president’s level,” the Pentagon press corps wrote. “As the nation’s top defense leader, Secretary Austin has no claim to privacy in this situation.”
“At a time when there are growing threats to US military service members in the Middle East and the US is playing key national security roles in the wars in Israel and Ukraine, it is particularly critical for the American public to be informed about the health status and decision-making ability of its top defense leader,” they added.
While Biden plans to keep Austin in the role for the foreseeable future, Kirby also said he expects that the Biden administration will “see what we can learn from this.”
“I fully expect that we’ll take a look at process and procedure here,” he said. “We’ll do what’s akin to a hot wash and try to see if processes and procedures need to be changed at all or modified so that we can learn from this.”