6 min read

What we know about Lloyd Austin’s hospitalization

Lloyd Austin has been hospitalized twice in the last month. Almost no one in Washington was informed.
What we know about Lloyd Austin’s hospitalization
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in 2021. (Pentagon)

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, January 10, 2024. The 2024 elections are 300 days away. The Iowa caucuses are five days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Lloyd Austin is six heartbeats away from the presidency. As Defense Secretary, he oversees a $700 billion budget and 3.2 million employees, the largest workforce in the world. And he has played a key role in coordinating America’s efforts to aid allies in two ongoing wars, in Israel and Ukraine, as well as many other global hotspots.

Which is why it’s a no small deal that he was hospitalized twice in the last month without almost anyone in Washington being informed.

Austin revealed yesterday that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, the reason for both hospital stays. He has known since early December. President Biden learned yesterday. Let’s walk through the timeline, then I’ll go over what this all means:

  • Early December: Austin diagnosed with prostate cancer as a result of routine health screenings. He does not tell the White House or Defense Department (DOD) officials.
  • December 22: Austin undergoes a “minimally invasive surgical procedure called a prostatectomy” to treat the cancer. He temporarily transfers duties to his deputy, Kathleen Hicks, but does not tell her why and does not inform White House or DOD officials. He returns home the next day and resumes his duties.
  • January 1: Austin returns to the hospital in extreme pain, later found to be due to a urinary tract infection which resulted from the December surgery.
  • January 2: Austin, now in the ICU, again transfers duties to Hicks. She is not told he is in the hospital, although several DOD officials are informed. No one tells the White House.
  • January 4: Hicks learns about the hospitalization, as does National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, who informs President Biden. The Pentagon press secretary, who is aware of the hospitalization, holds a press briefing without revealing his boss’ health status.
  • January 5: The DOD publicly reveals for the first time that Austin is in the hospital, a statement that is only released at the insistence of the White House. Members of Congress are informed just minutes before.
  • January 6: Austin speaks to Biden and issues a statement committing to increased transparency. He does not tell the president or the public he has been diagnosed with prostate cancer.
  • January 9: Austin’s doctors reveal the cancer, which Biden learns about the same day. Austin remains in the hospital, although he has been moved out of intensive care.

This is a fairly damning timeline. The fact that Austin was hospitalized in December without telling anyone — and then again in early January without telling the public or the president for several days — represents a stunning lack of transparency for someone in Austin’s position.

Another extraordinary facet of the whole episode is that Austin was apparently hospitalized for so long without anyone in Washington noticing, especially seeing as the second hospitalization took place during a period in which the U.S. carried out a major drone strike.

The explanation that has most often been given in the press is that Austin is known to be private, an introvert who rarely holds press conference and keeps a small circle of confidants. Even before he was tapped as Defense Secretary, he had earned the moniker “the silent general” in military circles.

But, of course, Austin is no longer a low-profile member of the military brass. “Lloyd Austin is a SecDef acting like he’s still a 4-star,” Tom Nichols, a retired Naval War College professor who now writes for The Atlantic, wrote on X.

In his January 6 statement, Austin took “full responsibility” for the lack of disclosure, but the role of his staff is worth noting as well, including a press secretary who held a briefing for reporters without telling them about the hospitalization and other senior aides who waited two whole days to clue in the White House or even the Acting Defense Secretary. (The weak excuse given here has been that Austin’s chief of staff had the flu, although she was not the only official who knew of the hospitalization without telling Biden’s staff.)

“Someone’s head has to roll,” a DOD official told Politico.

For now, at least, Austin’s job appears secure. Biden is famously loyal to his underlings (and stubborn about bowing to Beltway criticism); his Cabinet has been the most stable in decades. Administration officials have said that he would not accept Austin’s resignation if it were offered.

But the situation has opened the administration up to criticism from both sides of the aisle, including some Republicans calling for Austin to step down or be fired. The leaders of the House Armed Services Committee released a bipartisan joint statement expressing concern; the panel’s chair, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), opened a formal inquiry into the lack of disclosure yesterday.

“Everything from on-going counterterrorism operations to nuclear command and control relies on a clear understanding of the Secretary’s decision-making capacity,” Rogers wrote in a letter to Austin. “The [Defense] Department is a robust institution, and it is designed to function under attack by our enemies, but it is not designed for a Secretary who conceals being incapacitated.”

The White House has acknowledged that the process was mishandled — “It is not optimal for a situation like this to go as long as it did,” spokesman John Kirby said yesterday — and initiated new protocols to avoid a repeat.

A new memo from White House chief of staff Jeff Zients, obtained yesterday by Axios, orders all Cabinet departments to review their protocols for agency leaders transferring their duties and directs them to inform the White House when such transfers take place.

Worth a listen.

Donald Trump’s attorneys received a frosty reception yesterday when they argued, with Trump in attendance, that the former president has immunity from prosecution for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election because he was conducting “official actions.”

The three federal appeals court judges hearing the arguments — two appointed by Biden and one by George H.W. Bush — all appeared deeply skeptical.

One revealing exchange took place between Trump lawyer D. John Sauer and Judge Florence Pan, who pressed Sauer on how far his arguments could stretch: Would a president have immunity if he sold pardons? Gave away military secrets? Ordered SEAL Team 6 to assassinate a political rival? Where do “official actions” start and stop?

Click below to hear Pan’s questions and Sauer’s responses, which are worth listening to in their entirety:

More news to know.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) acknowledged yesterday that Congress will need to pass another short-term spending bill to avoid a partial government shutdown later this month. McConnell’s stance puts House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) in a bind; Johnson said in November that he would not accept another stopgap measure.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), the No. 3 Senate Republican, became the latest GOP lawmaker to endorse Trump yesterday, joining the entire House Republican leadership. He is the 20th senator to back Trump’s primary campaign; no senators have endorsed Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis.

Rep. Greg Pence (R-IN), the brother of former Vice President Mike Pence, announced yesterday that he will not seek another term in Congress, continuing a string of GOP retirements.

Two Biden judicial nominees have withdrawn their names from consideration, including one pick who struggled at her confirmation hearing to say what Articles II or V of the Constitution do. (Article II covers the Executive Branch; Article V details the amendment process.)

The day ahead.

Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley will face off in a debate in Iowa, airing at 9 p.m. ET on CNN. Donald Trump will participate in a town hall on Fox News at the same time.

President Biden will have lunch with Vice President Harris today, the only event on his public schedule.

The Senate is in session. Votes are expected, but not have been scheduled.

The House is set to vote on two pieces of legislation on Taiwan, as well as a measure to overturn a Biden administration rule on electric vehicle chargers.

The House Homeland Security Committee will begin impeachment proceedings for Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, while the House Oversight Committee will consider holding Hunter Biden in contempt of Congress.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Smith v. Arizona, a case concerning testimony at a drug trial.

Thanks for reading.

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