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    Lloyd Austin: What we know about defense secretary’s hospitalization


    The Pentagon’s announcement late on Friday that US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had been in the hospital since New Year’s Day shocked both the Pentagon press corps and the national security establishment. Three days on there are still many questions to be answered including what’s wrong with Austin and when he’ll leave Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland.

    But CNN’s reporting and further disclosures from the Pentagon have begun to shed some light on the still murky circumstances around his hospitalization — and why it took so long to inform other senior officials.

    Austin went into the hospital for an elective procedure on December 22 when he was on leave, Pentagon spokesman Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said over the weekend. He went home the following day, and “continued to work from home through the holidays.” In response to a question from CNN on Monday, Ryder said the Pentagon did not inform the White House that Austin was having the procedure.

    On January 1, Austin began experiencing “severe pain” and was transported from his home to Walter Reed by an ambulance, Ryder said, where he was admitted to the intensive care unit.

    “He was conscious, but in quite a bit of pain,” Ryder said. He underwent “tests and evaluations” at the hospital that evening and on January 2, and delegated some authorities to Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks “on the basis of medical advice.” The same day, Austin’s chief of staff Kelly Magsamen, senior military assistant Lt. Gen. Ronald Clark, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. CQ Brown were notified of Austin’s hospitalization.

    Ryder was unable to provide details as to whether or not Austin was unconscious at any time between his arrival at Walter Reed on January 1 and his delegation of authorities to Hicks. But he emphasized that at “no time was national security in jeopardy,” and that as he understood it, Austin was “capable of executing his duties as the Secretary of Defense.”

    Among the others who knew of Austin’s trip to the hospital included his personal security detail, who accompanied him to the hospital, and a junior military aid who met with him at Walter Reed on January 2.

    “[T]here was positive contact in terms of the Secretary’s location at all times,” Ryder said.

    For days, other Pentagon officials and senior members of the Biden administration – including President Joe Biden himself — did not know that the defense secretary was in the hospital. Among those in the dark was Hicks, to whom Austin transferred some of his authorities on January 2.

    Ryder also said Monday that January 1 was not the first time Hicks had taken over some of Austin’s duties due to him being in the hospital; she was also not told after he transferred some authorities to her during his elective procedure on December 22. The White House was not told about that procedure, either, Ryder said.

    No notification was made to Hicks, Biden, the National Security Council, or the military service secretaries until days later.

    The cause for delay in notification, Ryder said, was that Magsamen was “ill with the flu.” It remains unclear why Magsamen did not delegate the responsibility to notify the White House or Congress, or why others in Austin’s immediate circle who knew of his condition did not send the notification.

    “So I will say up front … the Secretary has taken responsibility in terms of the overall transparency concerns,” Ryder said. “And again, you know, I work every day with Chief Magsamen, and you’re not going to meet anybody that works harder than her. And she was ill with the flu. And so, not standing up here to make excuses other than the explanation for why there was a delay and the fact that we know we can do better.”

    Two days later, on January 4, Magsamen informed Hicks and National Security adviser Jake Sullivan of Austin’s hospitalization. The same day, Magsamen and Hicks began drafting a public statement and congressional notifications.

    It took roughly a day to release those notifications and a statement, Ryder said, because they were working to ensure “we had the facts, to make sure it was coordinated.”

    Austin was not among those who signed off on the statement that was ultimately released at roughly 5 p.m. on Friday evening. Congress was notified shortly before then. Ryder later added that since the news broke on Friday evening, Austin has spoken with Senate Armed Services Chairman Sen. Jack Reed. The Pentagon also said Austin had resumed his duties.

    Ryder said Monday that the Pentagon is reviewing its notification processes and procedures. In terms of Magsamen’s failure to notify the proper officials, Ryder said one of the things being reviewed is essentially taking “the human out of the loop” to ensure a more consistent process.

    Asked if the fact that Austin was in the hospital for days before Biden or the national security adviser knew and it appeared to go unnoticed suggested that Austin was out of the loop, Ryder said Austin “works incredibly hard every single day to make sure this nation is safe.”

    “He had a complication due to a surgery, went into the hospital to get it taken care of, and he remains very, very focused on making sure that the department has what it needs and what it needs to do to defend the country,” Ryder said. “So you know, again, not making excuses here, but having worked with him for a very long time, and having observed him up close, he’s not out of the loop. He is incredibly engaged. You will never meet a more dedicated public servant.”

    Ryder also said Monday that Austin had held calls with Hicks and Sullivan, and received an “operational update” from US Central Command commander Gen. Erik Kurilla with Hicks and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

    Biden standing by Austin

    Despite the mounting questions about why Austin and his staff failed to notify the White House, Congress, and the National Security Council, officials have insisted that Biden is standing by Austin.

    National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Monday that there are “no plans or anything other than for Secretary Austin to stay in the job and continue in the leadership that he’s been demonstrating.”

    In a press gaggle on Monday from the Pentagon, Ryder said Austin has not offered to resign, nor has his chief of staff or anyone else who was in a position to notify the president of Austin’s condition. He remains in the hospital, though he is no longer in intensive care, Ryder said.

    Asked why the Pentagon did not inform the White House about Austin’s initial procedure at Walter Reed on December 22, Ryder said he did not know, but that the Pentagon is now reviewing their notification procedures and “considering the impact” of statutory reporting requirements.

    “[B]ottom line is we know we can do better, and we will do better,” Ryder said.

    As the Pentagon attempts to mitigate the fallout of the news with the White House standing behind Austin, lawmakers are demanding accountability and more answers.

    On Monday, Reed said that he wishes Austin “a speedy and complete recovery,” but added he was concerned “that vital chain of command and notification procedures were not followed.”

    “He is taking responsibility for the situation, but this was a serious incident and there needs to be transparency and accountability from the Department,” Reed said. “This lack of disclosure must never happen again.”

    The ranking member of the committee, Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, also wished Austin a speedy recovery over the weekend but lambasted the Pentagon for “deliberately” withholding Austin’s medical condition “for days.”

    “That is unacceptable,” he said. “We are learning more every hour about the Department’s shocking defiance of the law.”

    Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana, who is eyeing a bid for Senate, said he is planning to introduce impeachment articles for Austin on Tuesday. While the impeachment effort is likely to go nowhere, it marks another example of how Republicans are increasingly weaponizing the tool for political purposes. Rosendale said he hasn’t had a chance to talk to his colleagues yet about co-sponsoring his impeachment resolution, but will do so when members return to Washington.

    Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa told reporters, “It’s absolutely unacceptable, when we’ve got Houthis attacking Americans and carrier ships, when we have the Israeli/Gaza war going on, what we have in Ukraine going on, and we have a secretary of defense that’s just absent.”

    Sen. Joe Manchin said that Austin’s actions “were very disturbing,” and that he supports some sort of hearing – public or private – to examine what happened. “Congress needs answers,” the West Virginia Democrat said.

    While most senators have expressed shock, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said she didn’t see a need for any further investigation into this situation. “Some Republicans want to play politics 24/7,” she said, adding that she has no interest in what caused his hospitalization.

    “I hope that the Secretary recovers fully and speedily and is back at work at 100%, as soon as possible. He has taken full responsibility for this. And I’m quite certain it will never happen again,” she said.

    Austin said in a statement on Saturday that he ultimately takes full responsibility for his decisions about disclosure and commits “to doing better.”

    CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Manu Raju, Haley Talbot, Morgan Rimmer and Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.



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