There are “no plans” for the secretary of the U.S. Department of Defense to step down from President Joe Biden’s cabinet even as criticism intensifies amid reports he secretly underwent elective surgery before the new year and was re-hospitalized following post-operation complications without alerting the requisite top government stakeholders.
It remained unclear what procedure(s) may have been performed on Lloyd Austin, 70, who was re-admitted to Walter Reed Army Medical Center on New Year’s Day when he was “experiencing severe pain,” the Associated Press reported Sunday night – three days after it was revealed that people like Biden, the U.S. Secretary of State and top Pentagon officials were unaware the secretary had surgery on Dec. 22.
Austin reportedly stayed in the facility’s intensive care unit for at least four days and remained hospitalized “recovering well and in good spirits” as of Sunday night without any indication of when he may be released.
It appears as though Austin – the first Black Secretary of Defense – may not have followed official protocol without alerting government officials of his planned and unplanned hospitalizations, particularly at a time when there are intensifying national defense interests stemming from the ongoing conflict in the Middle East as well as the war in Ukraine, both of which the U.S. government is involved.
On Sunday, Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder released an official statement, via CNN:
Austin was hospitalized following an elective medical procedure he had on December 22, while he was on leave, Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said. He returned home the following day, but on the evening of January 1 he “began experiencing severe pain” and was transported to Walter Reed via ambulance.
“He was placed in the hospital’s intensive care unit to ensure immediate access to due to his medical needs, but then remained in that location in part due to hospital space considerations and privacy,” Ryder said.
The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. C.Q. Brown, was notified January 2 that Austin had been hospitalized the day before, Ryder told CNN. But he is not in the chain of command. The military service secretaries, who are in the chain of command, were not notified until January 5, four days after Austin checked into the hospital.
Ryder said that Austin’s chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen, was “unable to make notifications before then” due to illness.
“She made those notifications on Thursday to the deputy secretary and national security adviser,” Ryder said. He declined to answer follow-up questions about why none of Austin’s other aides could notify the White House or his deputy of his hospitalization sooner.
Notably, Ryder added that Austin “has no plans to resign” over the controversy that Reps. Mike Rogers and Adam Smith, the Republican chair and Democratic ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, respectively, expressed concern in a statement about “the disclosure” of Austin’s hospitalization.
In a previous statement released on Friday night, Ryder tried to reassure: “At all times, the Deputy Secretary of Defense was prepared to act for and exercise the powers of the Secretary, if required.”
USA Today described Austin as keeping his hospitalizations “a secret” from the president and others.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks was among the government officials who said they were unaware of Austin’s hospitalizations.
One Pentagon official who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity questioned the protocol and suggested there may be a “cover-up” at play, underscoring the concerns about Austin.
“Heads have to roll,” Brett Bruen, a former diplomat and expert in crisis communications who worked in the White House under then-President Barack Obama, told USA Today. “This is not a minor miscommunication. It’s about the confidence that our national security structure has in its leadership and that the leadership is acting in a transparent way.”
Austin was swiftly confirmed as the first Black secretary of defense nearly three years ago following his nomination by Biden after the 2020 election was certified.
Biden notably called Austin “the person we need in this moment” after a mini-bipartisan controversy broke out because he had only been retired for fewer than five years – fewer than the seven years of being a civilian stipulated by law for all Defense Secretary nominees.
In remarks after his confirmation, Austin tried to allay concerns about having any conflict of interest while serving as secretary of defense.
“I come to this new role as a civilian leader,” he said. “With military experience, to be sure, but also with a deep appreciation for maintaining civilian control of the defense department.”
He said he would surround himself with career civil servants and ensure there is “meaningful civilian oversight.”
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