Republicans slam Defense Secretary Austin's 'unacceptable' handling of hospitalization

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifies before a House Armed Services Committee hearing about his failure to disclose his cancer diagnosis and subsequent hospitalizations, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 29, 2024.

Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

Republicans grilled U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at a hearing Thursday about the handling of his January hospitalization following his cancer diagnosis.

“It’s totally unacceptable that it took three days to inform the President of the United States that the Secretary of Defense was in the hospital, and not in control of the Pentagon,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., the chair of the House Armed Service Committee.

Thursday’s hearing centered around why the Deputy Defense Secretary and the White House were not immediately informed that Austin was hospitalized after complications arose from surgery to treat his prostate cancer.

“This is about judgment, and poor judgment,” said Michael Waltz, R-Fla. “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.”

Austin doubled down on his apology from earlier this month and said despite there being a breakdown in notifications during his hospital stay, there were never any lapses in Pentagon authority.

“We did not handle this right, and I did not handle it right. … As you know, I’ve apologized, including directly to the president, and I take full responsibility,” Austin said at Thursday’s hearing.

The hearing occurred just days after a Pentagon internal review said the process for transferring the secretary’s authority should be improved but that “nothing examined during this review demonstrated any indication of ill intent or an attempt to obfuscate.”

Republicans said the incident jeopardized national security and said the incident shows that President Joe Biden is either aloof or Austin is out of the loop.

“Our adversaries should fear us and what you’ve done is embarrassed us,” Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., said.

Democrats said Austin’s lack of transparency should not be repeated but said lawmakers should be focused on funding the government and providing aid to Ukraine.

“Rather than nitpicking the Secretary of Defense about his precise process in this situation, we should go ahead and pass the national security supplemental,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.

Austin said the Pentagon has already implemented some of the internal review’s changes that are mostly classified. The Defense Department’s inspector general is also conducting a review of the incident.

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