As an army officer and defense secretary Lloyd Austin has developed a reputation as a man of few words who tries to stay out of the public eye, a trait the White House has seen as a plus — until now.
Austin’s desire to keep a strictly low profile backfired when he failed to inform the White House for several days that he had been hospitalized on New Year’s Day due to complications. treatment of prostate cancer.
His silence about his medical condition has created a political headache for the Biden administration and angered lawmakers from both parties, who demanded to know why the secretary and his senior staff were kept in the dark about the president’s stay in the country. intensive care unit at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
The White House said President Joe Biden has full confidence in Austin, and officials said the president did not plan to accept an offer to fire him or resign.
Inside the White House, from Biden’s top advisers to the president himself, Austin’s unspoken public demeanor has been seen as an asset, especially for a team that hates leaks and drama. But according to some officials, sometimes an asset can become a liability. And they say that happened with Austin.
A former senior military officer and friend of Austin’s described him as an introvert, “a good, decent guy without a dishonest bone in his body.”
While the former officer did not believe Austin was fired, they said the lack of disclosure about his condition and hospitalization was inexcusable.
“He’s a private person, but he’s also the secretary of defense,” she said.
Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University who has written extensively on civil-military relations, said that “the desire for privacy, while understandable, is not a privilege you have when you are a civilian in a nuclear weapon. chain of command”.
Feaver said it was a “huge mistake” not to inform the president, the national security adviser and the White House chief of staff about Austin’s condition.
Throughout his career, Austin, now 70, was a quiet, unassuming figure. Unlike some generals who enjoyed public speaking and pushed back against dissent, Austin preferred to work behind closed doors without fanfare.
While he headed Central Command as a four-star general, Austin rarely spoke to reporters, overseeing American troops in the Middle East in the U.S.’s war against the Islamic State terrorist group.
During his tenure at CENTCOM, when scheduled to speak at a 2014 Washington event organized by the Atlantic Council think tank, Austin insisted that no television cameras in the room.
Austin’s reserve for Biden and his team was seen as a strength when he was elected to the position of Secretary of Defense. A “team of rivals” wanted to avoid a Cabinet they believed some generals and Pentagon officials had undermined President Barack Obama by, for example, briefing reporters and lawmakers to pressure the president on whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, officials say.
Biden, who worked closely with Austin during his time in uniform, and his aides saw the retired general as a loyal, steady hand who would not upset the White House and who shared the president’s cautious views on military action.
When Biden decided to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan in 2021, he rejected the recommendation of military commanders and Austin to keep a smaller force. But Austin carried out his decision without hesitation and kept a lid on any criticism from the Pentagon.
Administration officials also praised Austin’s role in rallying support from NATO members and other countries for more arms to Ukraine.
“I could do better”
But Austin has become the center of unwanted attention in recent days, frustrating some senior White House officials for what they see as an unnecessary, self-inflicted mistake by the secretary and his staff.
On December 22, Austin went to Walter Reed to undergo surgery for prostate cancer and returned home the next morning. But within days, Austin had “severe abdominal, hip and leg pain” and nausea, and had to be rushed to hospital on Monday, January 1, according to his doctors.
Austin was transferred to the intensive care unit after developing complications from a previous procedure, including a urinary tract infection and abdominal fluid retention that disrupted the function of his small intestines. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks was told Austin would take over on Jan. 2, but Pentagon officials said the reason was not disclosed.
Austin has until Thursday, Jan. 4, to attend the event at nearby Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Austin’s chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen, told White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his deputy, John Finer. The secretary had been in the hospital since Monday evening, according to Biden administration officials. Sullivan briefed the president, the White House chief of staff and the White House counsel.
The Pentagon had no plans to make a public statement or inform members of Congress, and no one around Austin understood the need to disclose his health, administration officials said. According to officials, Sullivan and White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients requested the statement after Austin was hospitalized Thursday.
The next day, the Pentagon released a statement revealing that Austin had been in the hospital all week due to complications from an undisclosed medical procedure. The Pentagon also said it had reinstated Austin as secretary.
On Saturday, Jan. 6, Austin said in a statement that he “could have done a better job of ensuring the public was properly informed” and that he “takes full responsibility for my disclosure decisions.” That same day, Austin spoke to Biden for the first time since being hospitalized. Two people familiar with the call said the secretary was angry at the time. And only on Tuesday, January 9, Austin announced his medical diagnosis of prostate cancer – which aides said was made in early December – to the president and the public.
Both Democrats and Republicans have sharply criticized Austin and the Pentagon in recent days, calling for a full explanation of why the secretary’s condition was kept secret from the White House and lawmakers.
On Wednesday, Rep. Chris Deluzio of Pennsylvania became the first Democrat to call for Austin’s resignation.
“I have lost confidence in the leadership of the Department of Defense due to the lack of transparency regarding Secretary Lloyd Austin’s recent medical treatment and its impact on the continuity of the chain of command,” Deluzio said in a statement.
The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Alabama, has announced a formal investigation into Austin’s hospitalization, requesting detailed information from the Pentagon about what medications Austin was taking, what official decisions he had made since Jan. 1, and what official decisions he had made. . all written communication between his office and the White House.
Not only Austin, but also his chief of staff and other aides are now under intense scrutiny from Congress over their role, with growing questions about why they did not immediately notify the White House of his condition.
Although Austin is still recovering in the hospital, the Pentagon says he is “fully engaged” and receives regular updates from senior military officials, including the head of Central Command, Gen. Michael “Eric” Kurilla.
At some point, Austin may be forced to face a high-profile grilling by lawmakers, but his previously tight-lipped approach means he may not have strong allies on the Hill.
“One of the lessons in Washington’s civil-military relationship is that you have to build trust when you don’t need it, so it’s there when you need it,” Feaver said.
Compared to its predecessors, Austin went further. But after that, “I suspect he’ll have a slightly more forward-leaning public engagement,” Feaver said.
Former colleagues of the defense secretary say his long, successful career should not be judged by this single episode. Austin, who grew up in Georgia when segregation still existed, is the nation’s first African-American secretary of defense. He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point in the 1970s, when black officers were rare.
“This kid from South Georgia went to the US Military Academy where there were almost no blacks in the US military at that level. Every step taken on this path is his success,” said the former soldier.
“But I would also think about the pressures he’s under, both personal and professional, which I’ve never experienced. Austin had the extra weight he carried as a black man rising up in a predominantly white institution, the former military said.
In May, Austin spoke about his youth in the segregated South at an event in North Carolina.
“I grew up in Georgia during Jim Crow. Our local public high school has long been white. Austin said at Fayetteville State University. “And one of my sisters and I were among the first Black students to integrate it.”
“Those were pretty ugly days,” he said. “And the first year was especially difficult.”
Austin praised the “quiet resolve” of teachers, school principals and officials who championed the American principle that all men are created equal.