Jan 8, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Top Democrats dismayed at secrecy from Biden’s defense secretary

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Photo: Simon Wohlfahrt/AFP via Getty Images.

Some leading Democrats are joining their GOP counterparts in blasting the Pentagon's failure to disclose details of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin's hospitalization.

Why it matters: Republicans are increasingly floating congressional inquiries and even resignation as details emerge in what is becoming a significant Washington scandal.

  • Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said he is "not quite ready" to call for Austin's resignation – as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) have done – but wants an open hearing to get a "full disclosure" on the situation.

What they're saying: Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters he is a "big fan" of Austin, but "there are a lot of unanswered questions, and a lot of his friends would like to know just what happened."

  • Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the Armed Services Committee chair, said in a statement "this was a serious incident and there needs to be transparency and accountability from the Department," adding, "This lack of disclosure must never happen again."
  • Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a member of Democratic leadership, called the incident "very disturbing" and echoed Wicker's call for a hearing: "Any type of hearing ... closed, open, whatever – we need to get answers."
  • "We'd like to know what the circumstances are," said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "We obviously need to have a full accounting for his current health situation."
  • Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), another leadership member, said she wants to ensure there are "no questions about who's in charge in the future."

State of play: The Pentagon revealed on Friday evening that Austin had been hospitalized on Jan. 1 for unspecified complications from an elective medical procedure, with subsequent reports revealing that President Biden, White House officials and Congress weren't informed until days later.

  • Austin's powers were delegated to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who reportedly also wasn't informed of his hospitalization.
  • New details continue to trickle out, with the Pentagon revealing to reporters on Monday that Austin was taken to the hospital by ambulance on Jan. 1 after experiencing severe pain.

The latest: Austin remained hospitalized as of Monday but was no longer in the intensive care unit, Pentagon spokesperson Pat Ryder said in a statement.

  • "He continues to experience discomfort but his prognosis is good," said Ryder. "We do not have a specific date for his release from the hospital at this time but will continue to provide daily updates until then."

Between the lines: "What was he thinking???" one senior House Democrat told Axios in a text message.

  • The Democrat said they can understand Austin's desire for personal privacy, but "it is troubling that he could be AWOL for several days without [the president] or [the National Security Council] knowing."

Yes, but: Some Democrats stopped short of co-signing Republicans' calls for hearings or resignations, while others said they are not worked up about the situation at all.

  • "He has taken full responsibility for this and I'm quite certain it will never happen again," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), another leadership member, accusing Republicans of wanting to "play politics 24/7."
  • Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a senior Armed Services Committee member, said the situation is "just something that can't happen again" and "needs to be fixed," but said of calls for resignation: "I don't think that's warranted."

What we're watching: Austin appears to be secure for the moment, with White House press secretary John Kirby telling reporters on Monday, "There is no plan for anything other than for Secretary Austin to stay in the job."

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