White House to review Cabinet protocols after Austin’s hospitalization

by Tommy Grant

The White House chief of staff on Tuesday ordered Cabinet heads to notify his office if they ever can’t perform their duties, as the Biden administration, reeling from learning of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s surprise illness last week, mounts a policy review.

Jeff Zients, in a memo to Cabinet secretaries, directed that they send the White House any existing procedures for delegating authority in the event of incapacitation or loss of communication by Friday. While the review is ongoing, he is requiring agencies to notify his office and the office of Cabinet affairs at the White House if an agency experiences or plans to experience a circumstance in which a Cabinet head can’t perform their duties.

The memo comes after President Joe Biden and other top officials weren’t informed for days that Austin had been hospitalized and had turned over power to his deputy. A Pentagon spokesman blamed the lapse on a key staffer being out sick with the flu.

“Agencies should ensure that delegations are issued when a Cabinet Member is traveling to areas with limited or no access to communication, undergoing hospitalization or a medical procedure requiring general anesthesia, or otherwise in a circumstance when he or she may be unreachable,” Zients’ memo states. It also requires that agencies document when any such transfer of authorities occurs and that the person serving in the acting role promptly establish contact with relevant White House staff.

A copy of the memo was obtained by the Associated Press.

Austin, 70, went to the hospital on Dec. 22 for what the Pentagon press secretary called an “elective procedure” but one serious enough that Austin temporarily transferred some of his authorities to his deputy, without telling her or other U.S. leaders why. He went home the following day.

He also transferred some of his authorities to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks after experiencing severe pain and being taken back to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center by ambulance and put into intensive care on Jan. 1. The White House was not informed he was in the hospital until Jan. 4.

The Pentagon has announced its own internal review and in a memo issued Monday broadened the circle of leaders who would be informed of any delegation of authorities by the defense secretary to ensure that, in the future, “proper and timely notification has been made to the President and White House and, as appropriate, the United States Congress and the American public.”

Going forward, any time authority is transferred a wider swath of officials will also be notified, to include the Pentagon’s general counsel, the chair and vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Combatant Commanders, service secretaries, the service chiefs of staff, the White House Situation Room, and the senior staff of the secretary and deputy secretary of defense.

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