Pentagon chief out of hospital but still in GOP crosshairs

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is back at home after a weeks-long hospitalization, but he is still in hot water with lawmakers, with a Republican-led inquisition just beginning as to why he and those around him kept his illness and treatment secret.

House and Senate lawmakers have demanded that Austin — recovering from an infection that stemmed from an earlier surgery in December to treat prostate cancer — be forthcoming with the details around his decision to keep his diagnosis under wraps, even when he entered the intensive care unit.

But defense officials have so far been evasive as to why Austin’s top aides kept President Biden and others in the dark and have dodged GOP requests for an in-person briefing or hearing with the Pentagon chief.

The lack of information prompted House Armed Services Committee Chair Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) on Thursday to publicly call on Austin to testify next month on “decisions made to withhold information from the President, Congress, and the American people.”

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 09: Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) leaves during a break in a House Republican Steering Committee meeting at the U.S. Capitol Building on January 09, 2023 in Washington, DC. The House Republican Steering Committee, which is a panel of around 30 lawmakers from different regions of the country, held the meeting to elect chairs of committees for the 118th Congress. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Rogers, who earlier this month launched a formal inquiry as to why Austin kept his hospitalization private, said he was promised answers when he last spoke to the Pentagon chief by phone. He has since been disappointed by the response, according to a letter sent Thursday to Austin.

“When you and I last spoke, you promised full transparency,” Rogers wrote. “While you did respond to some of my questions I had for you, a concerning number of questions were not addressed.”

Austin, along with his Chief of Staff Kelly Magsamen and the Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, responded to several questions Rogers put forward in letters to all three sent on Jan. 9.

In Austin’s response, obtained by The Hill, he stressed that at no point during his stay at Walter Reed “were there any gaps in authorities or risk to command-and-control.”

“Either I, or the Deputy Secretary of Defense, have always been fully prepared to support the President as Commander-in-Chief throughout the duration of my care at Walter Reed,” Austin wrote.

He also laid out much of what has already been made public, including the general timeline of events around his hospitalization and when specific players were notified of his condition.

“As I have stated previously, I take full responsibility for my personal decisions related to the disclosure of my cancer diagnosis,” he wrote. “Health matters, particularly potentially serious illnesses such as cancer, are deeply personal, but I recognize that the office I hold requires a greater level of transparency.”

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Rogers said he was alarmed by Austin’s refusal to answer whether he instructed his staff not to inform Biden or anyone else of his stay at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., which began Jan. 1 after he experienced severe pain and was quietly whisked from his Virginia home via ambulance.

The incident for days was shrouded in secrecy, with an aide for Austin asking the ambulance to “not show up with lights and sirens” because “we’re trying to remain a little subtle,” according to a 911 call first reported by The Daily Beast.

The White House and Hicks were not notified of his hospitalization until Jan. 4. Lawmakers, meanwhile, were not told until shortly before the Department of Defense (DOD) released a public announcement on Jan. 5.

It wasn’t until days after that, on Jan. 9, when Austin revealed his ailment was an infection that stemmed from a Dec. 22 surgery to treat his prostate cancer, found during an early December health screening — a diagnosis the White House also knew nothing about until that morning.

The fiasco has sparked a 30-day internal Pentagon review on the policies and procedures surrounding how officials are notified of a transition of authorities, an investigation by the DOD inspector general, and a White House review of protocols for how Cabinet officials delegate authority.

Austin was released from the hospital Monday, 15 days after he was first taken there. He has admitted he “could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed” of his ailment, but he has yet to offer a concrete answer as to why he didn’t do so initially.

“Unfortunately, this leads me to believe that information is being withheld from Congress,” Rogers said. “Congress must understand what happened and who made decisions to prevent the disclosure of the whereabouts of a cabinet secretary.”

Rogers also called for Austin to testify before a full House Armed Services Committee hearing on Feb. 14 given the Pentagon chief’s “unwillingness to provide candid and complete answers.”

Austin has not yet committed to attending the hearing, according to a Congressional aide.

In a statement, Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said the department received Rogers’s request but had nothing further to provide.

The DOD on Wednesday had provided the committee “three letters in a good-faith effort to respond to the Committee as expeditiously as possible, recognizing that there is an internal 30-day review underway, and the DOD Inspector General is conducting his own review,” Ryder said.

“As always, we will respond to congressional requests as appropriate, to include requests for the Secretary to testify,” he added.

The Senate Armed Services Committee has not yet called for a formal hearing, but Republicans on the panel have demanded face time with the Defense secretary, with ranking member Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), calling for lawmakers to be briefed “immediately.”

In their joint letter, Wicker along with panel Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) — the lone lawmaker Austin spoke to the weekend after his hospitalization was revealed —  demanded information on the incident.

A Pentagon spokesperson told The Hill on Friday the building has responded to that letter on Wednesday, though a Senate aide said they were not aware of that response.

In addition, several GOP lawmakers, as well as one Democrat, have called for Austin to step down.

Administration officials say Austin has no plans to resign and that Biden will not ask him to step down.

Austin has been working from home following his release from the hospital. Though he’s retained full authority — participating in meetings at the Pentagon by phone or by video — officials don’t have a date when he’ll return to the building.

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