Criticism swirls over defense secretary’s hushed-up hospitalization

by Tommy Grant

Former President Donald Trump on Sunday called for the dismissal of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin over his unannounced week-long hospitalization and “improper professional conduct” while Republican and Democratic lawmakers expressed concerns about the incident.

On Jan. 5, Pentagon officials announced that Austin, 70, had been hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland since Jan. 1 after complications following an elective surgery. Key congressional and White House leaders were not notified of his condition until several days after his admission.

Austin remained in the hospital on Jan. 7. He released a statement taking blame for the lack of communication over his health status, acknowledging that “I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed.”

But Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president in this year’s elections, called Austin’s actions “dereliction of duty” on social media and suggested that he be immediately fired by President Joe Biden.

“He has been missing for one week, and nobody, including his boss, Crooked Joe Biden, had a clue to where he was, or might be,” Trump wrote.

Most members of Congress were more measured in their responses but still expressed concerns over how the lack of communication impacted the Pentagon’s chain of command.

“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,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and ranking member Adam Smith, D-Wash., wrote in a statement released Sunday.

“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.”

Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Roger Wicker, R-Miss., called Austin’s poor communication with key leaders “unacceptable” and called for a congressional briefing on the matter from military leaders.

“When one of the country’s two National Command Authorities is unable to perform their duties, military families, members of Congress, and the American public deserve to know the full extent of the circumstances,” he said in a statement.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y. and the third-ranking GOP leader in the House, on Monday echoed Trump’s call for Austin’s dismissal.

“This concerning lack of transparency exemplifies a shocking lack of judgment and a significant national security threat,” she said in a statement. “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.”

The Associated Press reported that Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks was not notified four days after Austin’s hospitalization. At the time, she was on leave, raising questions about who was in charge of key decisions involving military planning and policy.

Military members can face serious criminal charges for failing to notify superiors of extended absences, but the rules for civilian defense employees are less clear. Biden has not yet publicly commented on Austin’s medical situation or the controversy surrounding it.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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