Defense Secretary Austin’s job appears to be safe, for now

“There is no plan for anything other than for Secretary Austin to stay in the job.”
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Lloyd Austin
U.S. President Joe Biden talks with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin after delivering the State of the Union address on February 7, 2023. (Jacquelyn Martin-Pool/Getty Images)

There are no indications that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin might lose his job for the massive communications breakdown that led to the White House and most of the military being unaware for days that the Pentagon boss was hospitalized and in intensive care.

President Joe Biden has no plans to fire Austin, said John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council and a Pentagon spokesperson insisted Austin does not plan to resign.

Though Austin’s medical condition over the last week remains mostly a mystery, defense officials confirmed Monday that his stay at Walter Reed National Medical Center began when he was rushed there in an ambulance on January 1 due to complications from a previously undisclosed surgery the week prior.

Austin issued a statement on Jan. 6 acknowledging that he “could have done a better job” making sure the public was informed about the situation.

“But this is important to say: this was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure,” Austin said.

Kirby said the White House is focused instead on Austin’s return.

“The president’s number one focus is on the secretary’s recovery, and he looks forward to having him back at the Pentagon as soon as possible,” Kirby told reporters on Monday, according to a White House press pool report. “The president respects the fact that Secretary Austin took owners for the lack of transparency. He also respects the amazing job he’s done. There is no plan for anything other than for Secretary Austin to stay in the job.”

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For his part, Austin has not offered to resign over the matter, and he has no plans to step down, Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters on Monday.

Ryder offered a lengthy mea culpa on Monday for the Defense Department’s failure to notify the White House, Congress, and the American public that Austin had been rushed to Walter Reed in an ambulance on Jan. 1 following complications from an elective procedure on Dec. 22.

Austin remained hospitalized on Monday, but he has been released from intensive care and his prognosis is good, Ryder said. Austin resumed his full duties Jan. 5.

“I want to underscore that Secretary Austin has taken responsibility for the issues with transparency,” said Ryder, who added that Austin’s office will conduct an internal review of notification processes and procedures.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III hosts the annual POW/MIA recognition ceremony at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Sept. 16, 2022. (Lisa Ferdinando/DoD)

Defense officials have not said publicly what type of procedure Austin underwent in December, nor was Ryder able on Monday to say whether Austin was unconscious at any time while in the hospital.

While Austin was in intensive care, the U.S. military launched an airstrike on Jan. 4 in Baghdad that killed a leader with an Iranian-backed militia group. Ryder explained on Monday that Austin and Biden had already authorized the airstrike, so Army Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, head of U.S. Central Command, had the authority to carry out the strike when he felt it was appropriate to do so. Austin was made aware of the strike afterward.

Congress did not learn that Austin had been hospitalized until Jan. 5, prompting some lawmakers to criticize the Pentagon.

“This lack of disclosure must never happen again,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on Monday. “I am tracking the situation closely and the Department of Defense is well aware of my interest in any and all relevant information.”

On Monday, Ryder offered the most detailed timeline yet on  who knew what about Austin’s medical condition and when they knew it.

Dec. 22: Austin undergoes an elective medical procedure at Walter Reed, during which he transfers certain authorities to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, Ryder said. Neither Hicks nor the White House was notified about this hospital stay.

Dec. 23: Austin is discharged.

Jan. 1: Austin is transported by ambulance to Walter Reed with complications from the surgery, where he is admitted to the Intensive Care Unit while experiencing severe pain, Ryder said.

Ryder said he did not know if defense officials were told not to notify the White House and the American public that Austin had been taken to the hospital.

Jan 2: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown and the Joint Staff are told that Austin is in the hospital, Ryder said.

Also on Jan. 2, Austin again transfers certain authorities to Hicks, but she remains unaware that Austin has been hospitalized until two days later, said Ryder, who explained that such transfers of authority are routine. He also claimed that it is common for Hicks to not know the reason why Austin has taken such actions.

“For example, when the secretary visited the USS Ford, for a period of time he’s on a Navy aircraft that has very limited comms [communications],” Ryder said. “So, the deputy secretary’s military assistant, for example, would receive an email, essentially saying. ‘Authorities have been transferred,’ period, dot. And then when he gets to the ship, an email says,‘Authorities are resumed by the secretary.’”

Austin’s chief of staff Kelly Magsamen is notified about the situation on Jan. 2,

Jan 4:  White House officials first learn of Austin’s condition after Magsamen tells Hicks and the National Security Council that the defense secretary is in intensive care. She delayed two days in delivering this information, Ryder said, because she was sick with the flu.

When asked why Magsamen was unable for two days to let Hicks and the White House know about the situation or delegate that responsibility to someone else, Ryder said: “The secretary has taken responsibility in terms of the overall transparency concerns. I work every day with Chief Magsamen, and you’re not going to meet anybody that works harder than her, and she was ill with the flu.”

Once Hicks becomes aware of the situation, she and Magsamen begin drafting a public statement and start the process of notifying Congress, Ryder said. Hicks initially prepares to return to Washington, D.C., but she is told that Austin is expected to resume his duties as defense secretary on the following day.

“Consistent with Title 10, U.S. Code 132: Deputy Secretary Hicks made some routine operational and management decisions for the department over this period and was fully authorized and ready to support the president on other military matters, should the need have arisen,” Ryder said.

Jan 5: The military service secretaries and chiefs of staff, and Congress are told of  Austin’s condition. The public is informed around 5 p.m..

“Five o’clock was the time that we ultimately got it coordinated, approved and ready to go,” Ryder said. “It was not lost on me that that’s the least ideal time, but it was as fast as we could work to get it out.”

The initial statement also does mention that Austin had been in intensive care, and it only becomes clear afterward that even President Biden has been unaware for three days that his defense secretary was being treated at Walter Reed.

Both the Pentagon Press Association and the Military Reporters & Editors Association have issued statements blasting the Pentagon for not being forthcoming that Austin, a cabinet official, had been hospitalized for a week.

Ryder said that he first learned that Austin was in the hospital on Jan. 2, but he did not learn the full extent of the defense secretary’s condition until three days later. During that time, Ryder was waiting for more information, and that is why he felt he was “not at liberty to disclose” to reporters that Austin had been hospitalized during a Jan. 4 Pentagon news briefing.

“I recognize that I should have tried to learn more and to press for an earlier public acknowledgement,” Ryder told reporters. “So, I want to offer my apologies and my pledge to learn from this experience, and I will do everything I can to meet the standard that you expect from us.”  

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