Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, whose failure to disclose his need for emergency hospitalization has ignited a firestorm, was moved out of intensive care on Monday, as Democrats and Republicans intensified their calls for accountability, and senior officials at the White House and Pentagon struggled to defuse the uproar.
Austin, 70, remains under doctors’ supervision at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. He was taken there by ambulance Jan. 1, while in “severe pain” with undisclosed complications from a Dec. 22 medical procedure that included an overnight stay, administration officials said.
But their halting explanation of the situation, and Austin’s lack of transparency about what led to his health crisis, have only amplified the scrutiny following revelations that Austin’s senior staff declined to disclose the issue to the White House for days. The Pentagon said Monday night that it remains unclear when he may be released but that officials intend to provide daily updates so long as he remains at Walter Reed.
A spokesman, Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder, said in a statement Monday night that Austin “continues to experience discomfort but his prognosis is good.” Ryder said that Austin is in “good condition” and that he is “recovering well and in good spirits.”
Critics, including political allies, have chastised the administration for its secrecy surrounding Austin’s medical situation, with many noting the calamity that could have occurred with the United States actively, if indirectly, involved in two wars and the recent rise in attacks on U.S. forces deployed in the Middle East. Internally, some frustrated officials have complained, too, saying the handling of the incident showed “unbelievably bad judgment” on Austin’s part.
Officials in the White House and the Pentagon vowed Monday to review the lapses in communication that led to the imbroglio, but they declined again to reveal many basic details about the situation — including whether Austin was ever incapacitated and what prompted the extended hospital stay. Austin resumed his duties on Friday night from Walter Reed, Pentagon officials said.
Officials have said that President Biden retains confidence in Austin and has no plans to replace him. John Kirby, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, said that Biden is focused on the secretary’s recovery and looks forward to having him back at the Pentagon as soon as possible.
“There is no plans for anything other than Secretary Austin to stay in the job and continuing the leadership that he’s been demonstrating,” Kirby said. It was unclear, though, whether even Biden, who spoke with Austin on Saturday evening, now knows specifics about his condition, or how enduring it could be.
“That would really be between the two men,” Kirby said.
At the Pentagon, meanwhile, Ryder acknowledged during an hour-long back-and-forth with reporters that he first learned of Austin’s hospitalization Jan. 2, two days before that information was transmitted to the National Security Council and three days before it was disclosed to Congress and the public. A handful of other Defense Department officials, including Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Kelly Magsamen, Austin’s chief of staff; and Lt. Gen. Ronald Clark, Austin’s senior military assistant; also were apprised of the secretary’s medical situation before the White House was made aware.
Still, no one at the Pentagon notified Congress or Austin’s No. 2, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, even after Hicks assumed some of Austin’s duties during a previously planned vacation to Puerto Rico, Pentagon officials said. Ryder blamed the breakdown on Magsamen having contracted the flu, requiring her to miss work. It remains unclear whether Magsamen delegated any responsibilities to subordinates while she was ill. Ryder said it was the chief of staff who ultimately notified Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, at the White House on Jan. 4.
Ryder offered no explanation for why another Pentagon official did not notify the White House sooner, despite the Defense Department’s culture of bestowing responsibility for key duties to multiple personnel or offices to avoid gaps in decision-making. Asked if Austin directed any of his staff to withhold information, Ryder answered indirectly, saying “that is one of the things we’ll be looking at in terms of process improvements.”
Republicans have seized on the issue, with some calling for Austin’s resignation and Rep. Matt Rosendale (Mont.) announcing articles of impeachment against the defense secretary. Austin has no plans to resign, and no one else on staff has offered to step down, Ryder said.
“I’m not standing up here to make excuses, other than the explanation for why there was a delay, and the fact that we know we can do better and we’re committed to doing better,” Ryder told reporters.
As the Pentagon press secretary, Ryder said, he should have pushed harder to release information to the public. He conducted a media briefing Thursday, two days after learning of Austin’s hospitalization, but it took the Pentagon more than 24 hours to disclose the situation in a one-paragraph statement released after 5 p.m. on Friday.
“I did not feel that I was at liberty to disclose that information until we knew more,” Ryder said. “I have no excuse.”
Ryder said Austin’s office will review its actions, and that “no one has more interest in making sure that we can learn from this.” Asked why the matter has not been referred to the Defense Department inspector general’s office for an independent review, he declined to speculate.
Magsamen, in a memo released Monday night, said that the review was authorized to “identify the relevant facts and circumstances” over the last week and evaluate how Hicks was notified that she should carry out Austin’s duties. The review’s findings also should include recommendations for improving notification of the president, senior defense officials and other relevant parties, Magsamen wrote. It will be led by Jennifer Walsh, the Pentagon’s director of administration and management.
Leon Panetta, who served as defense secretary and CIA director during the Obama administration, said he thought it would be better for Austin if he were to disclose more about his original procedure.
“My experience from Washington tells me that in the end, the truth will come out and it’s probably better to come from him,” he told NPR on Monday.
Panetta said it would have been especially important for Austin to inform the White House despite the secretary’s apparent desire for privacy.
“Yes, you do have your privacy. … But at the same time, he is a public person, being secretary of defense, and carries responsibilities that are critical to our country,” he said. “And for that reason, you do have a responsibility to inform certainly the president and the national security team when in any way you’re going to be incapacitated. And that’s the greatest failing here.”
Another prominent Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, on Monday made his first public remarks about the situation, saying in a statement that he wishes Austin a “speedy and complete recovery” but has concerns “that vital chain of command and notification procedures were not followed while the Secretary was under medical care.”
While Austin is taking responsibility for the secrecy, “this was a serious incident and there needs to be transparency and accountability from the Department,” said Reed, who spoke to Austin on Sunday. “This lack of disclosure must never happen again.”
Reed, speaking to reporters in Rhode Island on Monday, said he did not learn about Austin’s hospitalization until Friday.
An aide to Reed, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue, said that the senator and other committee members from both political parties want more information so they could determine who is responsible for the notification breakdown.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said in a statement that she was “shocked” that the administration has not been more transparent about Austin’s medical condition or why he remains hospitalized.
“Given the extremely serious military decisions that the United States is dealing with, including attacks on our troops by Iranian-backed proxies, the war in the Middle East, and the ongoing aggression by Russia in Ukraine, it is inexplicable that the Secretary’s condition remains shrouded in secrecy,” Collins said. “I wish him a speedy recovery, but also believe that he must be forthcoming about the nature of his illness and his ability to do his job.”
Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that he is “quickly losing faith” in Austin’s ability to lead. The decision to withhold vital information from Congress, he said, must be addressed.
Separately, the Marine Corps disclosed on Monday night that their top officer, Gen. Eric M. Smith, underwent successful open-heart surgery earlier in the day “to repair a bicuspid aortic valve in his heart.” Smith’s case has drawn comparison to Austin’s, with some noting that his service disclosed that he suffered cardiac arrest on Oct. 29 less than a day later.
“He is in good condition and continues to recover at the hospital among family members and his doctors,” the service said in a statement. “Following his rehabilitation, Gen. Smith will return to full duty status as Commandant.”