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White House doubles down on keeping Lloyd Austin, though Biden raps poor judgement

WASHINGTON – The White House insisted Friday that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will remain in his post despite not telling anyone for several days last week — including President Biden — that he was in the hospital.

“We’re all going to learn from this event,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told MSNBC. “But the defense secretary’s going to stay in office. The president has full faith and confidence in him.”

Hours later, while taking questions from reporters in Pennsylvania, Biden himself said “I do” when asked if he still had confidence in Austin — but also answered “yes” when asked if Austin had shown a lapse in judgement by not informing him of his illness.

The 70-year-old Austin’s secret hospitalization sent shockwaves across Washington and caused outrage on Capitol Hill — but the shenanigans are consistent with the retired Army general’s private nature, which most US officials saw as an asset before last week’s scandal.

Who’s in charge?

Austin was rushed to Walter Reed National Military Hospital on the night of Jan. 1 in severe pain from a urinary tract infection – a complication from a prostatectomy he had undergone Dec. 22 – but failed to inform the White House of his resulting hospitalization until Jan. 4.

Instead, he quietly transferred his authorities to Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks on Jan. 2 – without telling her or any of his other Pentagon colleagues of the reason behind it. Hicks, who was vacationing in Puerto Rico at the time, did not learn of Austin’s hospitalization for another two days.

The Pentagon announced Austin’s hospitalization in a Friday news dump the evening of Jan. 5, but the defense secretary kept the full story of his hospitalization quiet until this past Tuesday, when his Walter Reed doctors released a statement that was news to both the Pentagon and the White House.

While some other senior military officers seek out the spotlight and grandstand, Austin, who retired from the Army in 2016 after 41 years of service, was happy to keep his head down and do his job — an attractive attribute to an administration grappling with scandal involving the president’s own family and eager to avoid any inkling of insubordination elsewhere.

As hoped, Austin’s private nature has continued upon his taking over the Defense Department. He’s briefed reporters at the Pentagon just a handful of times during his tenure, which has included the disastrous US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the nearly two-year-old war in Ukraine and the recent outbreak of war in the Middle East.

His absence has long frustrated the Pentagon press corps, whose calls for Austin to join them in the briefing room have only grown louder since his hospitalization drama.

“[Austin] has made a commitment to do better when it comes to transparency, and we’ll certainly take the request to have him come brief you here in the briefing room,” Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said Tuesday, responding to reporters asking for him to appear. “He’s not planning on resigning.”

With Austin, Biden could trust that he would get fair assessments and suggestions in private without public defiance. Even after the president ignored Austin’s advice and chose to pull all US troops out of Kabul in August 2021, the defense chief dutifully carried out the order and squashed opposition to the move inside the Pentagon.

But now, after last week’s public humiliation, some senior officials say Austin’s greatest asset has become a liability.

‘Rules for thee

Behind closed doors, some of Austin’s supporters have expressed disappointment in his actions – or lack thereof – and struggled to understand why someone with his level of authority and decades of military experience would shirk such a obvious responsibility: To respect the military chain of command.

In the armed forces, officers keep close tabs on the troops under their command. Often, service members are required to ask permission of their leaders to travel even in their off hours in case an emergency happens and they are needed immediately.

Austin’s four decades of experience meant his attempts to conceal his illness particularly rankled members of the rank-and-file, who say last week’s nightmare was a classic case of “rules for thee, not for me.”

Some in Austin’s orbit believe his silence about his prostate cancer stems from his reclusive nature and a deep commitment to privacy — though others say he gave up that right when he agreed to serve in Biden’s Cabinet.

Others have speculated that Austin feared that revealing his illness would lead to a push to remove him from office, though that theory is contradicted by Biden’s continued reliance on his defense secretary during the most recent crisis.

Austin has been running the Defense Department from his hospital bed for a week, receiving regular briefings from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and combatant commanders, tending to administrative duties, and even participating in the planning of Thursday’s strikes on Yemen-based Houthi fighters terrorizing the Red Sea.

“It was seamless; his participation was no different than it would be on any other given day, except that he was briefing the president on options and engaged in the discussions from the hospital,” Kirby told reporters on Friday.

Another senior defense official involved with the strike agreed, saying Austin’s absence from the Pentagon “hasn’t seemed to matter” to continuing operations.

“I gotta tell you, I’ve been involved in this for the entirety of it – I couldn’t tell you where General Austin was, whether … he was upstairs in his office, or anywhere else,” the official said.

Regardless of his intentions, Austin almost certainly never meant to bring the response he received. Aside from lawmakers’ calls for his resignation, the House Armed Services Committee has began an inquiry into the matter, and Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) dropped off articles of impeachment Tuesday over the scandal.

“The pattern of misinformation and lies he has provided to the American people are a serious threat to our national security and cannot be tolerated,” Rosendale said at the time. “It is time to make a change.”

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Written by SaleemBaloch

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