Latest News

‘Embarrassment’: Republicans hit Austin hard during tense hearing over his hospitalization

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin came under fire Thursday from House Republicans, who faulted the Pentagon chief for not blaming anyone for failing to notify the White House of his January hospitalization.

The contentious House Armed Services Committee hearing was Austin’s first public appearance on Capitol Hill since his hospital stay last month to treat complications from cancer surgery, a flap that’s spurred intense criticism and even calls to resign from GOP lawmakers.

“Who will be held accountable for this, this embarrassment?” asked Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), leading off the session.

Republicans zeroed in on the fact that Austin was in the hospital for three days before President Joe Biden and the White House learned about his status, arguing it shows his lack of influence on national security.

“Either the president is that aloof or you are irrelevant,” Banks said.

Following the hearing, Armed Services Chair Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) told reporters that he no longer has confidence in Austin. But Rogers declined to saw whether Austin should resign, saying it is “not my call.”

During the hearing, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) also sharply criticized Austin for failing to inform the president of his whereabouts while the U.S. is engaged in conflicts around the world. In particular, she pointed to a Jan. 4 strike on Iranian proxies in Iraq, which occurred while Austin was still in the hospital.

“The president of the United States was not aware that you were not in the chain of command. So God forbid there was a retaliatory strike that would have caused potential delays,” Stefanik said. “Do you understand why this is unacceptable to the American people until those military families?”

Meanwhile, Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) slammed Austin for holding himself to a “different standard” than the rest of the American people. He noted that the Marine Commandant Gen. Eric Smith had a “medical incident” — a heart attack in October — and informed the relevant parties.

“My teenage daughter knows to tell her supervisor if she’s not going to work. The American people — truck drivers, bartenders — know they have to tell their boss or they get fired. But you’ve held yourself to a different standard. And that’s unacceptable,” Waltz said.

Austin, in his first hearing since the January incident, told them he did not instruct his staff to withhold news of his hospitalization from the White House. He repeatedly appeared to blame the communications breakdown on his staff.

“I was the patient, and so I expect that my organization would do the right thing,” Austin said.

However, he gave few new details during the hearing, focusing on changes the Pentagon has made to ensure top officials are notified when his powers are transferred to his deputy.

The secretary, who transferred power to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks the day after he was rushed to the hospital, emphasized that there was no gap in Pentagon leadership. But he reiterated that the episode was mishandled.

“Again: We did not handle this right,” Austin told lawmakers. “And I did not handle this right.”

The panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, hit back at Republicans who noted that adversaries were paying attention to the events, arguing “there was nothing that makes us appear weak” about the flap.

“We were doing everything that we needed to do to meet the national security needs of this country,” Smith said. “And if members of this committee incorrectly imply otherwise, they are merely giving aid and comfort to those adversaries that they claim to care about confronting.”

Austin’s testimony is the result of congressional backlash over his failure to notify the White House of his hospitalization in January for complications from earlier surgery to treat prostate cancer.

A classified 30-day review ordered by Austin’s office and sent to Capitol Hill last week found “no ill intent” by his staff in not informing the White House, but Republicans have criticized the report for not holding anyone accountable and for being mostly classified.

The review made several recommendations to improve the notification and procedures to transfer power, which Austin said the Pentagon will implement.

But Rogers said he plans to codify those changes to the notification procedures in upcoming defense policy legislation. The Alabama Republican said he specifically wants to require top officials to be given a reason when authorities are transferred after Hicks, the Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian, wasn’t told of Austin’s hospitalization at the time she took over temporarily.

“Any time there’s a transfer of authority going forward by the secretary of Defense to the deputy … I want it to have to be explained why,” Rogers said. “I’m very bothered by the fact that Kath Hicks was not told why.”

Several Republicans also noted that an underling would face discipline if they had gone to the hospital without reporting it to the chain of command.

“If a private soldier or a sailor or Marine would’ve done this, or an airman, there would’ve been consequences,” said Rep. Trent Kelly (R-Miss.). “They may not have been discharged from service, but there would’ve been consequences.”

Democrats, meanwhile, used the hearing to thrash House Speaker Mike Johnson and conservative Republicans for holding up a supplemental funding package that would provide billions of dollars in aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. Johnson has so far refused to move on the Senate-passed supplemental without border security requirements, as House Republicans dig in against providing additional aid for Ukraine.

“Mr. Secretary, it is not you that is the problem. It’s not what happened in your health emergency that’s the problem,” said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.). “When will this committee actually stand up for the defense of this nation? When my colleagues on the Republican side of this committee find the courage to get the job done?”

Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) also pivoted from Austin’s health to Ukraine, hitting Johnson for not putting the supplemental package up for a vote.

“We’re seeing the risk play out on the battlefield each and every day as the Ukrainians fight valiantly to defend their sovereign territory,” Courtney said. “Without our support, the Ukrainians will be outgunned in terms of artillery.”

And Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) called out “the outrage and the drama” from Republicans over Austin’s mistake, while those same lawmakers failed to take steps to protect Ukraine from Russian President Vladimir Putin and approve funding for weapons.

“Look, you made a mistake. You admitted it. You’re taking steps to address it. And you want to know what accountability is. Accountability is having to come and sit in front of people and their outrage and their drama in public about your health issues and the mistakes you’ve admitted you made when the entire world is wondering what the hell is going on with the United States of America,” Slotkin said.