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'Are you kidding me?': Republicans hammer Austin on secret hospital stay

House Republicans on Thursday lambasted Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for dodging questions on who was to blame for not notifying senior Biden administration officials of his hospitalizations in December and January.

The controversial incident — during which Austin was in the hospital for days to treat complications from an earlier cancer surgery before the White House was made aware — has called into question the line of communication between the Defense Department and the White House as the U.S. supports two major wars.

“This is a matter of national security, and someone needs to be held accountable,” House Armed Services Committee Chair Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said at the start of the panel’s heated hearing, Austin’s first public appearance on Capitol Hill since his hospitalizations.

“I find it very concerning that the secretary could be hospitalized for three days without anyone else in the administration even noticing … even while military operations were ongoing in the Middle East,” Rogers continued.

“Who will be held accountable for this, this embarrassment?” Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) asked more pointedly, adding he was “surprised” President Biden didn’t call for Austin’s resignation.

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), who hammered Austin on the timeline of his situation, was in disbelief when he said he could not say when his own staff became aware of his hospitalization.

“You don’t know when you told your staff that you were at the hospital? Are you kidding me?” Mace asked.

And Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) said even his teenage daughter “knows to tell her supervisor if she’s not going to work,” accusing Austin of poor judgement.  

“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 entered the hospital the evening of Jan. 1, when he was whisked to Maryland’s Walter Reed National Military Medical Center via ambulance. He stayed for two weeks to treat an infection stemming from a Dec. 22 surgery to treat prostate cancer.

But he did not inform the White House or his deputy Kathleen Hicks of the situation until Jan. 4, even though he had transferred his duties as Defense secretary to her Jan. 2.

Congress and the public did not learn of Austin’s hospitalization until the late afternoon of Jan. 5.

Austin had also not informed the White House, other top Pentagon officials or his staff of his early December cancer diagnosis and subsequent surgery.

Earlier this week, the Pentagon released a brief, unclassified summary of a 30-day review that found no attempt to hide Austin’s hospitalization but also that processes could be improved. The report effectively absolved officials of any wrongdoing, a finding that Republicans have criticized. 

“The chain of command doesn’t work when the commander in chief doesn’t know who to call,” Rogers said. “That’s why we want to know who made the decision to withhold that information from the president.”

Republicans also pointed to the three-day gap Austin was in the hospital before Biden was made aware, calling into question his influence on the nation’s national security decisions.

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

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) zoned in on a U.S. strike on Iranian proxies in Iraq on Jan. 4, which occurred before the White House was notified of Austin’s hospitalization, though he had given prior approval of the strike before being admitted.

“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 and to those military families?”

Austin spent the hearing walking a careful tightrope of deflecting responsibility for the incident away from himself and his staff, none of whom have been fired for the communications breakdown. He reiterated that the situation was mishandled.

“Again, we did not handle this right,” Austin said. “And I did not handle this right.”

But that high-wire act proved tricky, and more than once he appeared to lay culpability at the feet of his staff, whom he said he did not instruct to withhold information of his hospital stay from the White House.

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

He also stressed that there was no gap in Pentagon leadership throughout the entire timeline and said the building had made changes to ensure senior officials are notified of a transfer of duties.

“I’m also taking responsibility for some institutional changes to make sure that this cannot happen again,” he said.  

Source: The Hill

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