Jan 8, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Biden's Teflon Cabinet

Biden with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

The White House has moved swiftly to shut down talk of recriminations over Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's secret hospitalization, downplaying the baffling saga despite intensifying criticism from members of Congress.

Why it matters: Loyalty and consistency have been trademarks of President Biden's administration, which has seen less Cabinet and "A-Team" turnover than any president dating back to Ronald Reagan, according to the Brookings Institution.

  • Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, who resigned last March to become president of the NHL Players Association, is the only Cabinet official who has departed since Biden's inauguration nearly three years ago.
  • The White House has stood by as his replacement, Deputy Labor Secretary Julie Su, has led the agency in an acting capacity for nearly a year — despite her nomination being permanently stalled in the Senate.

Between the lines: Biden's steadfast — sometimes stubborn — support for his aides stands in remarkable contrast to the track record of former President Trump, who demanded personal loyalty but rarely reciprocated it.

  • Trump fired a staggering number of his top officials during his time in office — often via tweet. Many have gone on to become the most credible critics of the former president's fitness for office.
  • Just this weekend, for example, Trump's former Defense Secretary Mark Esper described his ex-boss — the current Republican front-runner for president — as a "threat to democracy."
Screenshot via CNN

State of play: Spokespeople for the White House and Pentagon told reporters Monday there are no plans for Austin — who remains hospitalized but is in "good spirits" — to resign.

  • The Pentagon has not revealed the details of the Dec. 22 elective surgery that led to Austin's hospitalization and admission to the intensive care unit on Jan. 1.
  • Officials have also not explained why Austin did not immediately inform the White House or even Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who assumed some of his responsibilities while vacationing in Puerto Rico on Jan. 2.
  • National Security Council John Kirby praised Austin for taking "ownership for the lack of transparency," and said he expects the White House to review its rules and procedures "to try to learn from this experience."

The intrigue: Politico reports that Biden would not accept a resignation from Austin even if he offered, and that chatter from the pundit class is likely to reflexively harden the president's view.

  • Members of Congress, meanwhile, are demanding answers as to how the Pentagon could have gone three and a half days without notifying the White House that the defense secretary was incapacitated.
  • No Democrats have so far called for Austin's resignation, though several have voiced criticism and demanded more information.

What they're saying: Austin "is taking responsibility for the situation, but this was a serious incident and there needs to be transparency and accountability from the Department," Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said in a statement.

The big picture: Republicans have been gunning for Austin and other top Biden national security officials ever since the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021.

  • Biden did not fire any members of his team at the time, and there's no indication that outside pressure — especially from partisan Republicans — will have any impact now.
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