Doctors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center announced on Tuesday that
Austin was hospitalized for complications from a December surgery to treat prostate cancer.
In the four days between the announcements of Austin’s hospitalization and the details of his condition, Republicans have hammered the Pentagon chief and Biden. Several prominent Republicans have already called for Austin to lose his job
for keeping the White House in the dark for several days about his Jan. 1 hospitalization, and for Congress to hold hearings on the episode. But they’re also using the incident to frame the Biden administration as off its game as war rages in Ukraine and between Israel and Hamas.
Nikki Haley, when asked during
a Fox News town hall about the issue on Monday, slammed Biden and touted her experience as South Carolina’s governor and ambassador to the United Nations under the Trump administration. She questioned why Biden is not speaking with his defense secretary every day.
“I think Biden should be fired,” Haley said. “This is unbelievable that we have a situation like this. When I had a crisis in South Carolina, if we were dealing with anything and I had to deal with my adjutant general, I was on the phone with him every day, twice a day. We have a war in Europe, we have a war in the Middle East, North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the United States, China is on the march.”
“The one thing that keeps me up at night is what happens between now and Election Day because Biden is making the country very vulnerable and putting us at risk,” she added.
A day after former President Donald Trump
argued Austin should be sacked, a Trump ally, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, said it was an indictment of Biden’s administration that neither he nor anyone else at the White House appeared to have noticed for days.
“It raises questions about Joe Biden’s competence or that he’s really in charge at the White House,” Cotton, a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, said Monday on Fox News.
With more Americans concerned about
Biden’s age and
cognitive health than Trump’s — despite the former president being just three years younger than the current commander in chief — Cotton took a jab there, too. Biden, the oldest sitting president in American history, would be 82 at the time of his second inauguration and 86 at the end of the term.
“It raises some troubling questions: If this administration would conceal a mere elective minor surgery for a Cabinet secretary, what might they be concealing about Joe Biden’s health,” Cotton said.
A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Biden and his team have portrayed themselves as the adults in the room after the chaos and high turnover of the Trump administration. But the disorganization at the Pentagon has undermined that narrative.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, appeared on Fox’s “America’s Newsroom” to argue the administration breached a statute that requires congressional leaders and certain government officials to be informed when the defense secretary is incapacitated.
Congress was informed that Austin was hospitalized on Jan. 5, four days after he was admitted.
“There is a lot our adversaries are noticing about our lackadaisical approach toward the chain of command and having gaps in the authority,” Wicker said.
Wicker and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a Republican hardliner on the House Armed Services Committee, are separately agitating for congressional hearings — which, if they happened, would stretch out the news cycle and shine a harsh spotlight on the embarrassing episode.
“The DoD’s failure to inform the White House, Congress, and the American People of Secretary Austin’s incapacitation reflects the lack of leadership, competency, and transparency throughout the entire Biden administration,”
Gaetz wrote in a post.
On Fox, Wicker called on Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.), and House Armed Services Chair Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) to hold hearings.
“This is an indictment of the administration’s attitude toward public disclosure and full transparency,” Wicker said. “They have commissioned a 30-day internal review. That is not going to be adequate. If we want to have a review, it needs to be done by an outside inspector general, and they should come before us for a hearing.”
Austin, who remains hospitalized as of Tuesday afternoon, has acknowledged that he came up short in disclosing his hospitalization, though a variety of questions remain.
Austin’s chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen, on Monday directed a 30-day review into his hospitalization and the process of notifying higher-ups.
Biden is standing by Austin, and his job doesn’t appear to be in danger at the moment.
But the incident has turned into a political headache for the Pentagon and White House that threatens to distract from their immediate agenda of hammering out a compromise aid package for Ukraine and Israel and funding the government in the coming weeks.
Even Democrats are
upset over the dustup and want more information, though many have batted down the most aggressive GOP calls for Austin’s ouster. Some also downplayed the need for a public hearing.
“I think we deserve an explanation. And I think that Secretary Austin will provide one very soon, and then we can decide whether we should have a hearing,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “But I fully support him. I would reject calls for his resignation.”
Progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) rebuffed calls for a hearing as political theater by Republicans.
“Some Republicans want to play politics 24/7,” Warren said.
“He has taken full responsibility for this and I’m quite certain it will never happen again,” she said of Austin.
Two Democratic senators running on their national security credentials — Senate Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee Chair Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee Chair Jon Tester (D-Mont.) — are among lawmakers who have voiced criticism.
“It’s just something that can’t happen again,” Kaine told reporters on Monday. “I’m troubled by it and the explanation of it, but it just needs to be fixed so it won’t happen again.”
Tester, in a brief interview, said Austin “needs to be talked to.”
Anthony Adragna, Jennifer Scholtes and Ursula Perano contributed to this report.