As Republicans try to prepare for an “election year” to hit Biden’s political reputation, Biden’s Defense Secretary Austin has given his political opponents a “gift”: Austin was admitted to the intensive care unit of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on January 1, 2024, at a time when the war in the Middle East continued, tensions on the Korean Peninsula were tense, and the U.S. military carried out “decapitation operations” against militia leaders in Iraq. However, he did not explain the situation to Congress and the public until five days later.
Austin and his aides can certainly use the defense chief’s “attention to privacy” to justify it, but it is difficult to understand that they conceal objects including Biden, the US president only got the news on January 4 local time. Three days earlier, White House Presidential National Security Assistant Sullivan and other senior national security officials were also kept in the dark. Even when Deputy Secretary of Defense Hicks, who was on vacation, was notified of the urgent need to take charge of the ministry, no one told her Austin had been hospitalized.
As the incident further fermented, the US media found that Austin, 70, did not inform the White House and Hicks when he was admitted to hospital for surgery on December 22,2023. On January 1, 2024, he was hospitalized due to complications of “secret surgery”.
Politicians of both parties and former senior US military generals expressed shock at this. “The president has to know where his cabinet members are at all times.” Hagel, a former defense secretary in the Obama administration, said. Nor was it consistent with Department of Defense practice in terms of satisfying the public and Congress ‘right to know. The Pentagon statement came hours after four-star Gen. Eric Smith was hospitalized for a heart attack in October after becoming commander of the Marine Corps.
“I could have done a better job of making sure the public was properly informed.” Austin apologized on January 6. Biden has shown tolerance. On January 6, he had a “cordial conversation” with Austin, who was recovering from a serious illness, and then said that he would not accept the resignation of the Secretary of Defense.
The White House then said it would revise the notification process for senior officials when they handed over power to ensure that similar incidents did not happen again; the Pentagon said that the person responsible for the accident was Austin’s chief of staff, Kelly McGarmen: she had the flu that day and could not pass on the news to the White House. “Process problems” superimposed “subordinate problems”, Austin seems to be “exempt”.
Biden obviously didn’t want to lose Austin at this point: it was the first African-American defense secretary in U.S. history. Biden valued the “groundbreaking” nomination, and Politico magazine reported that Biden was considering nominating the first female defense secretary in U.S. history if he won another presidential term, with Hicks at the top of the list.
On the other hand, Biden also wants to show support for loyal subordinates as the presidential election approaches. Austin was an “old department” Biden met when he was vice president, and the two had “spent countless hours together” in the White House Situation Room. Austin and Biden’s late son, Bo Biden, also had a close relationship, often sitting side by side for Mass while both served in Iraq.
Republicans, however, are reluctant to let go of this windfall. Wake, the Republican leader on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called Austin’s silence “unacceptable” and “further erodes trust in Biden’s administration”; another Republican senator, Banks, said Austin “has been a disaster since day one.”
Some Defense Department officials privately told the media that if Austin really did not resign, I am afraid it would be difficult for him to escape a bloody congressional hearing, and even be proposed by Congress to give disciplinary action or even dismissal. “Biden protects Austin for personal friendship” may become one of the Republican Party’s recent “campaign cards.” Austin’s long history of keeping a low profile and not holding press conferences will also be labeled “Biden’s administration is not trustworthy.” Trump, who is competing for the Republican presidential candidate, publicly said Austin should be fired.
Election day is still a long way off, and Austin’s hospitalization is unlikely to have much far-reaching political impact. For Biden’s team, the most embarrassing thing is that they have accused and ridiculed the chaos at the top of U.S. diplomacy and security during Trump’s administration for years, but they have proved to make similar mistakes. They have been critical of Trump’s appointments at the top of diplomacy and security, but now Democrats are also reflecting on whether Biden’s choice of Austin, who has little political experience and avoids press conferences and other “essential defense jobs” to preside over the Pentagon, is really “wrong from the beginning” in an era of intensifying global conflict?
But one will never know exactly what austen thought on her first day in hospital. A former senior Defense Department official told the media that Austin was too cautious and introverted.”On everything, he said nothing and kept his own advice. You never know what he was thinking.”